“Jesus came to give us moral guidance, and to prove he meant business, he let himself be killed and seen after death, so we would listen and be good.” Not being raised in any particular religion myself, it wasn’t until later that I discovered that this view of Jesus’ death and resurrection (which I heard from my grandmother) had more in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than it did with the historic faith of Christianity. But this view of Jesus-as-Klaatu, impressing the yokels with spiritualist stunts to wow them into listening to His preachments, is but one of many “alternative” views of the resurrection of Christ. In this view, it isn’t particularly important whether Jesus was raised bodily, just so long as His disciples knew He was “really alive”—more likely as a particularly impressive ghost.
To others, it isn’t important whether Jesus is alive even as a ghost so long as He “lives in the hearts of his countrymen.” This is more or less the position of alleged “Christian theologians” like John Dominic Crossan, who cheerfully relates this happy news in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994):
What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. But what was there at the beginning that necessitated such an intensive volume of apologetic insistence? If the Romans did not observe the Deuteronomic decree, Jesus’ body would have been left on the cross for the wild beasts. And his followers, who had fled, would know that. If the Romans did observe the decree, the soldiers would have made certain Jesus was dead and then buried him themselves as part of their job. In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.
In other words, Jesus’ corpse was dog food long ago, but since the idiot-savant apostles were particularly adept at religious psychosis and making lemonade out of lemons, then we can say the Resurrection is full of “hope” in a sense intelligible only to extremely advanced theologians like Crossan.
Then again, there are others who solve the problem of the Resurrection by not letting Jesus die. In this view, somebody else was crucified on Good Friday (somebody who really deserved it, like Judas Iscariot), while Jesus went off to a well-earned pension someplace else. Depending on which legend or Shocking Book (e.g., Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent) you choose, “someplace else” could be anywhere from Japan to France. Frequently, “Jesus didn’t die” scenarios go for the hearts-and-flowers conclusion favored by Hollywood, in which the retired Son of Man finally gets the girl, like Clark Kent in Superman II, and no longer has to pursue His unrewarding task of proclaiming platitudes. Typically, they pack Him off to some vineyard with Mary Magdalene, there to found a dynasty of Merovingians or something. Instead of having Him escape crucifixion entirely, some scenarios grant that He was crucified but insist that He only swooned (possibly with the help of some drugged wine) and regained consciousness later. But the central claim of all such scenarios is that Jesus didn’t really die on the Cross.
Still other theorists, often involved in the New Age movement, solve the problem by allowing Him to be only a spirit (divine or angelic, depending on the preference of the author) appearing as a man, a sort of holy vision. This solves the problem of His death by making it an illusion: a tidy disposal of a messy crucifixion that preserves the happy ending.
Meanwhile, others have much simpler and cruder explanations: Disciples stole the corpse, lied about it, and founded a cult for their own selfish gain and power. Slightly kinder than this is the Hysterical Hallucination Theory, which says the well-meaning apostles hallucinated the Resurrection. Others say it was a later generation of Christians who added the Resurrection to the New Testament. Originally, it was just a collection of apostolic memoirs about the Dead Master and His witty sayings. Many think St. Paul is behind the whole thing (see, for instance, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby). Under the influence of pagan myth, St. Paul allegedly transformed this ordinary Jewish rabbi into a Cosmic Christ figure. The original apostles, according to this school, would be horrified at what Paul did to the teaching of the gentle and witty Y’shua.
One of the obvious difficulties with all these theories is that they don’t fit together well. If later generations are to blame for importing Resurrection myths, then earlier ones aren’t. If it’s all Paul’s fault, then it’s not Peter’s. If the Eleven are body snatchers, then they’re not well-meaning hallucinators, and vice versa. Such theories demonstrate what C.S. Lewis once referred to as the “restless fertility of bewilderment” so much in evidence when debunkers try to overturn the mountain of solid evidence for the truth of the Christian claims. This is unsurprising, since these “alternative expla nations” are all much harder to believe than the Christian explanation of the Resurrection, which is nicely summarized by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-14:
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
This, the earliest creedal summary of the Faith, gives the lie to my first ignorant notion of the meaning and nature of the Resurrection. For it shows clearly that the real heart and soul of the New Testament teaching about Jesus is not that He was primarily a preacher, wonder-worker, reformer, sage, or deliverer of profound truths and happy thoughts, nor that the Resurrection was a special effect performed to wow us into following good advice.
The first fact of the Christian Gospel, according to the New Testament, is the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Without the Resurrection, you don’t have an “original” Gospel of witty sayings, wise saws, and modern instances. You have no Gospel whatsoever. This is why one-fourth of each of the Gospels focuses on a 72-hour period in the life of Jesus of Nazareth: His Passion and Resurrection. It is why the rest of the New Testament is overwhelmingly focused on the meaning of that death and Resurrection, not on His signs or sayings (almost none of which are preserved outside the Gospels). It is why virtually nobody but the most ignorant TV host these days holds the once-popular notion that the Resurrection was tacked onto the New Testament by later generations of Christians after the death of the apostles. The simple fact is that trying to account for any of the New Testament without placing the Resurrection at the absolute core of it is like saying that the real truth of Abraham Lincoln consists of platitudes about peace and justice and that the “Civil War” was just a myth concocted by later hagiographers that forms no part of the original story. If the “original Gospel” was just a collection of tales about Jesus going around saying “Niceness is nice,” the question that arises is what, exactly, was so interesting about Him?
The only answer is found in the actual documents of the New Testament, which began to be composed within 20 years of Jesus’ death. These already contain things like the creed previously mentioned and the insistence that the Gospel is about nothing other than Jesus and the Resurrection (Acts 17:18).
Very well, we can’t blame “later generations” for coming up with the Resurrection story. So, some say, let’s blame Paul. The problem with this theory is that Paul himself and witnesses who know Paul, such as Luke, as well as witnesses uninfluenced by Paul, such as Matthew and John, seem to be under the impression that the basic core of the story Paul has to tell is not Paul’s invention.
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received“—or, more prosaically, “I’m handing on to you the Tradition I was taught.” Taught by whom? In Paul’s case, taught by the apostles (Galatians 1:18-21) and by the normal primitive catechesis given in places like the Church at Antioch where Paul lived for many years before he started any mission at all (Acts 13). Paul says this sort of thing repeatedly and seems to take for granted not only that what he has to say about Jesus is common knowledge to all Christians (not just the ones he’s converted) but that none of the other apostles bopping around the Mediterranean—and none of the churches they founded—are going to have any quarrel with him when he says that Christ is risen. If Paul alone had come up with this myth about the Risen Christ while the rest of the apostles were just wandering hither and thither, sharing Anecdotes about Their Friend the Martyred Nazarene, you might think somebody would have noticed.
In short, if faith in the Resurrection is as old as Paul, it is as old as the apostles themselves. He preaches it for the same reason they do: He really believes he saw the Risen Christ, just as they say they saw the Risen Christ.
Ah, yes. They say. But why should we believe them? What if the Eleven were just body snatchers, stealing the corpse of Christ in order to portray themselves as the martyr’s best buddies and found a cult with Jesus as putative head but themselves as the adored big cheeses?
The difficulties with this are numerous. First of all, they don’t act like any cult leaders we know. The records they leave behind do not describe fearless, shiny, happy, faith-filled dynamos of apostolic courage, theological acumen, and intellectual agility. They show us a group of men whose chagrined honesty compelled them to carefully incorporate into the public record the fact that they were snobbish, spiteful, cowardly, factional nitwits who were slow on the uptake, ambitious, blind, selfish, and, when the supreme test came, quite willing to bolt and run in the hour of their Master’s terrible trial. Compare this with the adoring exhalations of the North Korean press on the Manifold Virtues of The Fearless Leaders, or the flawless perfection of Stalin according to the Stalinist press of the 1930s, or the Nazi hagiography of Hitler. The apostles make sure that their public preaching and the public record include a faithful recitation of their many, many sins. Moreover, they continue to preach the Resurrection for decades, despite separation, persecution, poverty, threats, torture, and martyrdom (except for John, who had the pleasure of watching his brother James executed for his testimony). In short, they speak and act like honest men, not like men out to make a buck or acquire power.
Indeed, so honest are they that they even make Jesus look rather ungodlike at first blush. Jesus is recorded displaying weakness, showing fear, confessing ignorance, and asking questions. He is described as unable to do certain things. The disciples’ official record has Him saying things that sound dangerously like denials of deity, such as “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God alone” (Mark 10:18) or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Yet we are to believe that cunning liars who carefully doctored history to make Jesus appear to be the Risen Lord also managed not to notice such unsettling details in their account?
No. What comes across with terrific force in the New Testament is that the testimony has been given by people who tell the truth, even about awkward facts not instantly advantageous to their claims. They come across as people who genuinely believe Christ risen, not as people who lie about a body that they know perfectly well was stolen or eaten by dogs. For the rest of their lives (right through to their torture and execution), the apostles behaved like men utterly convinced that they had met the Risen Christ. Indeed, so convinced are they that they include numerous details that, frankly, no liar would ever make up. So, for instance, no first-century Jewish liars would call as their first witness Mary Magdalene. For the Magdalene was prima facie incredible to a first-century Jewish audience on two counts: First, she was a woman; second, she was a woman out of whom seven demons were supposed to have been driven—a rather shady psychological profile (Mark 16:9). The Gospels read like accounts by honest people who are stuck with the facts—including the fact that one of the first witnesses of the Resurrection was a woman of uncertain reputation.
Of course, some will retort that this proves too much: We would not normally bother with the testimony of a psychotic (i.e., “demoniac”), so why bother with Mary’s? Because Mary is among the first, not the last, witnesses. The records point to hundreds of witnesses—most still alive at the time 1 Corinthians was written—and give an account of the Resurrection that is, in the main, coherent. An appearance to the women, to the Twelve at various times in and around Jerusalem, and to various others in Galilee, followed by an appearance to Paul some years later (not counting various vision phenomena that are of a different order). Nitpickers are fond of talking about the discrepancies among the Gospel accounts (books written decades apart for different audiences and for differing theological purposes). But what really stands out is how similar the tale is in all of them. If the minor discrepancies that distinguish them really mean they are false, then we must also conclude that JFK was never assassinated since witnesses have as many discrepancies in their testimony.
Indeed, it’s often the details that are so persuasive. Thus, another fact nobody would ever make up is the burial place of Christ: the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. It’s exactly the sort of detail that gives the Gospels the ring of truth. If you’re making the story up, you put the body in the tomb of some devoted disciple, not in the final resting place of a member of the ruling body that is most bitterly opposed to your message.
The mention of the tomb leads some people to another favorite theory: namely, that the disciples went to the wrong tomb and leapt to the conclusion that Christ was risen. One can only wonder what such theorists think people are made of. For the apostles to conclude that Jesus was the risen and glorious Lord of all on the basis of such a blunder would have required preternatural stupidity not only on their part but on the part of the Jerusalem authorities. Even if all the early Church was too obtuse to find its way back to the final resting place of the Man who was the focus of their devotion, surely somebody in the Jerusalem elite who opposed the growing sect of Nazarenes could have said, “Uh, guys? Here’s the corpse. You were looking in the wrong place. Next time ask for directions.” Joseph of Arimathea might have been of some help here. So might the women, who saw where He was laid. And such a theory becomes doubly silly when the early Church’s fascination with relics and tombs is factored in. Early liturgies tended to be held at grave sites, yet there is no cult that develops around the most important grave of all. Why, it’s as if the tomb had been empty or something.
Which takes us, in our taxonomy of Resurrection alternatives, to the various escape-from-death/swoon theories: the notion that Jesus somehow avoided death, either by skipping town and leaving a stooge to take the fall for Him or by enduring crucifixion and then escaping the tomb. It’s hard to say which version of this theory is more preposterous. If there’s a fact of history that’s not disputed even by hard-core atheist historians, it is the fact of His death. If we know nothing else about Him, we know that He died by crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem circa 30 A.D.
And yet some insist that He didn’t. Like a sort of first-century Elvis, He went into sudden and mysterious retirement, in sharp contradiction to everything He had ever said or done, and founded a dynasty or studied philosophy or something in some far-off land. What is the evidence for this? Well, there is none really, just hints, supposings, surmises, and what-ifs. It’s rather like the thinking behind Chariots of the Gods. It’s a case of a theory in search of evidence, not of evidence giving rise to a theory. Meanwhile, the people who were there give testimony, not that Jesus left town right after the Last Supper (a supper at which He specifically prophesied His Passion with a strange accuracy that would reduce Peter to tears when it all happened), but that He went to betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. And again, why would lying cult founders make up the story of that prophecy and its very embarrassing fulfillment? Indeed, eyewitnesses like John saw Jesus at both His trial and crucifixion. So there aren’t many ways for Jesus to have skipped town and left somebody else holding the bag.
Ah! But John only thought he saw Jesus die. Really, the Nazarene received a drugged wine, passed out, and awoke in a freezing-cold tomb on a chilly morning in April. The perfect setting for a dramatic recovery from scourging, crucifixion, massive blood loss, shock, and a spear wound to the heart, as nine out of ten doctors agree. He then stumbled out (after somehow freeing Himself from the bandages sealed to His torn flesh) and, shoving the zillion-ton stone that sealed the tomb out of the way, limped up to the disciples on His bloody feet, showed them His hands (complete with permanently immovable thumbs due to irreparable nerve damage), and gasped out a greeting between the stabs of agonizing pain from the spear wound. Most people, faced with such a ghastly spectacle, would dial 911. The disciples, naturally, greeted Him as the glorious Conqueror of Death and Lord of the Universe and founded a religion instead.
“Okay, fine,” the diehard skeptic says, “Jesus died. And the disciples didn’t steal the body and lie about it. They just hallucinated. Together. All 500 of them. For 40 days. No, really…”
Even if we put aside that troublesome matter of the empty tomb (with empty grave clothes in it), there’s still a problem concerning the nature of hallucinations. Mass hallucination is extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that it’s usually only invoked to explain away things like, oh, the Resurrection. The rest of the time, when 500 people say they saw somebody and spoke with him, we believe them, particularly when they have nothing to gain by saying it—when they are routinely put to death for saying it.
And we have other problems to deal with if we want to entertain the Mass Hallucination Theory. First and foremost is the curious fact that hallucinations like this are supposed to be the fruition of intense wish-fulfillment fantasies. The witnesses supposedly wanted Jesus to be alive so bad that they freaked out and thought they saw Him. On at least three occasions, however, His disciples failed to recognize Him when they did meet Him. We are told they were so desperate to see Him that they might have tricked themselves into believing they had seen Him, but they walked for half a day with Him and did not notice. Strange. More to the point, what hallucination can be touched and eats fish?
Which leaves us pretty much with the Jesus-was-a-divine-illusion school of Gnostic or New Age thinking. But if the Risen Christ was really a purely spiritual illusion sent by the divine to teach us higher truths about the unimportance of the body and the need to transcend our humanity, what could be more certain to obscure this lesson than a body that Thomas could touch, a body that breathes the air and eats fish? The apostles, at any rate, don’t seem to have picked up on these higher truths at all. They teach instead that the Risen Christ is raised bodily and is not only fully God but fully human, albeit glorified.
A resurrected body. Glorified. Fully God and fully man. When the alternatives have all spent themselves in fruitless clamor for our attention, it’s the old Christian story that still persuades. It’s the story of the Conqueror of Death who has Himself borne the sting of death and raised our dead human nature out of the grave so that we, too, may be resurrected. You can read all about it—without crackpot alternative explanations—in the New Testament. A most convincing book, especially when so many skeptics drive you to murmur, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian!”
The Resurrection is the factual cornerstone of Christian faith. Without it, you do not get a Gospel purified of superstition. You get a litter of low-rent “real” conclusions to the story of Christ that are vastly harder to buy than the Christian explanation. At the end of the day, the fact remains that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 19). But that never seemed to worry Paul, for “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).