”Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”(John 11:25)
These words recorded in John’s gospel are alleged to have been spoken by Jesus just prior to raising Lazarus from the dead. If true, Jesus could not have provided a better illustration and reminder of what was to befall him in the coming days.
If you believe the Bible,
The resurrection is the culmination of Jesus’ life on earth and without doubt the single greatest event in human history. It is the basis for the hope of eternal bliss when you die. Nothing on earth is more important than the certainty of Jesus rising from the dead and the security of knowing one’s place in heaven is guaranteed. Understanding the biblical passages detailing this incredible and momentous event, and living a life worthy of this sacred truth should be the primary goal and highest honor of every Christians. So why isn’t it?
Sadly, like most Christian doctrines, evangelicals possess a basic understanding of the very thing in which they put their eternal hope. Do they would know the biblical accounts of the resurrection are wildly inconsistent and logically absurd when closely scrutinized? Would they even bother to look? Or do they subscribe to a presumptive inerrancy which “trusts” in the resolvability of any and all biblical issues whether they’re aware of them or not?
We could expect Christian theologians have analyzed the four gospels recounting the final week of Jesus’ life with minute precision. Of all people, they should be experts on this sacrosanct topic. But the reality is, Christian leaders approach the biblical text describing the death and resurrection of Jesus as holy ground not to be tampered with. Each word is accepted carte blanche as divinely inspired. And if any questions arise as to the consistency and congruence of the biblical material which cannot be “reasonably” reconciled with inerrancy, it is categorized as “a mystery” beyond the scope of human reason to be made known in heaven.
I confess my own ignorance despite eight years of theological education. For years I studied the gospels and never thought (nor did my instructors teach) there were riddled with problems. Any textual that were raised were either swept under the carpet of “unknowable divine mystery” or explained away by appealing to the anything is possible miraculous defense.
I would suggest, the greatest argument against Christianity and the authority of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. The dictates of logic make is reasonable impossible to place any credence in the resurrection story as historic.
The disciples acted as if they had no idea the resurrection was coming, because they had no idea the resurrection was coming.
The many factors leading to this conclusion will be addressed throughout this article. They are: internal consistency (comparing and analyzing the four gospels for factual accuracy), prophetic validity (examining the basis for Jesus’ messiahship in Hebrew prophecy) and logical probability (evaluating the purported disclosure of Jesus impending death and resurrection in light of his followers response, or lack thereof). Each alone should be sufficient to doubt the veracity of this miraculous event, but together only those predisposed to deny their own mental faculty and ignore facts will persist in their belief.
Finally, an alternative theory will be shown to satisfy all textual considerations will be offered. It bridges the plausibility gap by neither accepting nor denying the reality of the experience of the resurrection rather than the resurrection itself. In short, it was the conviction of the disciples’ experience which was undeniable.
“Evidence that demands a verdict”
The above is the title of a popular book written by evangelical author Josh McDowell (1972) and revised several times. When I first entered Moody Bible College in Chicago, Il., his book was part of my reading requirements for a course on Christian apologetics. As the title suggests, his contention was the data contained in the Bible provided indisputable “evidence” Jesus was who the New Testament authors claimed.
I remember hearing him speak several times at Christian conferences, and was always transfixed by how clearly and convincingly his presentations were. He showed how it takes more faith not to believe what the Bible says then to believe what it says. The unbelieving world is in a deliberate state of denial because their sin depraved nature prevents them from acknowledging the obvious truths about Jesus and God.
I reflect back on those days often when examining how strong my beliefs were and why. The best explanation I can offer is I sincerely believed I had found the greatest truth known to man. It provided the answers to all of life’s mysteries and concerns. And despite a world that seemed incredulous and at times mocking of my faith, I wanted to have the answers so others might embrace the truth as I had.
The problem with this is most evangelicals render a “verdict” about Jesus (usually as children or teenagers) before hearing any of the “evidence.” It would be like deciding someone is innocent or guilty before the trial began based on your “personal relationship” to the individual. Few people embark on a rigorous and objective study of the Bible, which would take several years, before making a decision whether or not to convert. People become Christians out of fear not intellectual persuasion. Then after they look for answer to validate their decision.
Books and courses on Christian apologetics are not about critical reasoning to rationally appraise one’s faith. They begin with an incontestable precepts like the inspiration of the Bible and belief in miracles, e.g., the resurrection of Jesus. Then with this conviction firmly lodged as factual, all other data is rationalized to conform to it as evidentiary. Thus giving it the appearance of logically arrived at propositional truth.
This faulty reasoning begins with the non rational argument for the existence of God. If you cannot absolutely deny God’s existence and can offer probability for it, therefore, biblical miracles are possible beginning with the resurrection of Jesus.
I want to be clear at the onset, my issue is NOT with whether or not God exists (He, she, it or they very well might, who really knows?). It is with the reliability of the Bible as an absolutely authoritative document. Does it satisfy the requirements for this claim by Christians whether in part or full? By extension, if it cannot be trusted as supremely accurate in everything, it should not be trusted as supremely accurate in anything.
Divine inerrancy or inspiration propose a high bar of literary integrity which must be cleared; otherwise, it must be soundly rejected. The consequences being biblical teaching should never be appealed to as divinely mandated but only the general moral guidelines of ancient men and pre-enlightenment thinking.
I believe as a post-modern society, we should eschew giving the Bible anything more than the respect it deserves. It provides the historical foundations and traditional roots of two world religions. Its impact on western civilization is undeniable. It has been used as a tool both for good and evil from its inception. Its literary wealth is unfathomable.
It is the work of men, not the Word of God. To accord it divine status other than speculatively is an affront to rationalism and scientific investigation. The growing global menace of evangelical ideology based on implicit trust in the divine authority of the Bible should be aggressively confronted and its influence strenuously resisted.
Religion may still have a place in society but it certainly should not be given the prominence it currently enjoys nor deserves.
Is evangelicalism a cult?
No, but it is cultish.
Let me carefully qualify the above statement. A classic cult group is characterized by, among other things, physical segregation or isolation from the rest of society. This makes for easy identification. Think Waco or Jonestown. Those who choose to join one of these cult groups also willingly submit to separating from the rest of society implying their commitment to it.
Evangelicalism, or rather evangelicals, permeate every segment and level of society. They are “free” to go where they want, do as they please and say what they want. Churches are called sanctuaries where believers go for teaching, edification and fellowship. Sermons, books, podcasts, radio programs are some of the mediums where followers receive biblical instruction or perhaps indoctrination. What’s the difference?
Readers who have been exposed to the evangelical culture know thinking critically about Jesus is not encouraged unless as a tool to reinforce belief. Evangelicals are masters of utilizing the Straw Man argument and many other logical fallacies to denigrate those who deny the central tenets of the faith. They all stem from unquestioned allegiance to biblical inerrancy.
In this respect we may postulate evangelicals create an ideological barrier which serves to isolate them mentally from society while remaining in society. Evangelicals refer to this as, “Being in the world but not of the world.” Jesus in his high priestly prayer for his disciples put it this way:
14”I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (John 17:14-19)
The New Testament abounds with texts exhorting believers to live lives antithetical to unbelievers. Christians are meant to “sanctify” themselves. This means set themselves apart or consecrate themselves as holy and therefore incompatible with the unrighteous standards of the world. It should be impossible to mistake the two.
14”Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial [or ‘Beliar’] ? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:2]
17Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”[Isaiah 52:11; Ezek. 20:34,41]
18And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”(2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
20”But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ… “ (Phil. 3:20)
1”Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”(Col. 3:1,2)
11”Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11,12)
These passages emphasize the importance of Christians being distinct in their attitudes and behaviors with the unbelieving world. Instead their goal is the pursuit of spiritual treasures. This philosophy is based on a dualistic perspective which elevates the unseen spiritual world above the physical visible world both in importance and influence. Christians are exhorted to “seek the things above” and to sacrifice the pleasures of this life.
Creating an alternative reality and a source of truth (the Bible) that is superior to science and reason are also characteristic of cult groups.
1”Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1,2)
4”You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
15”Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
22”You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
These standards are rarely striven for by American evangelicals because they demand sacrifice, self denial, discipline, sexual restraint and modesty which run counter to the American way of life.
15″Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father d is not in them. 16For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.“(1 John 2:15-17)
Consider the many “Christian” celebrities who wantonly flaunt their wealth, power and sexuality. They shamelessly promote themselves and are unabashed in living a lavish lifestyle. None of which can be justified from the New Testament. I single them out because many rank and file evangelicals take their spiritual cues from them.
Most evangelicals are reluctant to take these teachings “too seriously” preferring a happy medium so as to enjoy the best of both worlds. They appeal to their own imperfections and moral failings as redeemed though struggling sinners as justification.
The rise and popularity of the “prosperity gospel” and the mega church movement (not necessarily synonymous) are no coincidence in the shift of evangelical attitudes from sanctification towards self indulgence. Materialism and consumerism dominate evangelicalism. Social reform has replaced personal piety as a priority. Being an evangelical is about self actualization and reaching one’s potential not personal sacrifice and self denial. Preachers offer sermons that sound more like pop psychology than exhortations to pursue biblical ideals.
There are small percentage of evangelicals who do fully invest their lives in the faith. They are markedly different from their complacent worldly brethren. We may describe these as “fundamentalists” or the fanatical, biblically speaking, wing of evangelicalism. Their commitment to the tenets of the faith is undeniable but not without dangerous consequences.
Most of us can attest to personal encounters with these “heavenly minded” evangelicals. Attempts to carry on a reasonable discussion which in any way challenges their faith is futile, fruitless and frustrating. Their minds are shut tight. When pressed they default to a form of spiritual logic which accommodates the impossible and miraculous to defend their faith.
Broadly speaking these two “types” of evangelicals pose a threat to many who do not share their beliefs. Both tend to champion traditional family values and look with suspicion on new modes of thinking about gender differences and sexual orientation. White evangelicals especially, as the previous election attested, entertain a racist agenda which is suspicious of minorities and immigrants. At stake is their perception of the American ideal. Those who support the Trump administration are unapologetic in wanting a president who is willing to act in accordance with their beliefs.
I have stressed repeatedly in these articles American evangelicalism is mostly populated from within. Belief becomes generational. Thus children are exposed to evangelical ideology at a very young age through parents, family members, friends, church programs (Sunday school, vacation bible school, camps, concerts, retreats, study groups, social outings, revival meetings etc… ), books, literature, internet services, radio and tv broadcasts, outreach programs, home schooling or though direct evangelism. The impact of this ideological indoctrination and socialization can be immense.
At the other end of the spectrum are the elderly and sick. They too often fall prey to the promises of evangelicalism. Fear of death, financial hardship, substance abuse, psychological instability or relationship struggles are among those things targeted by evangelicals. Jesus is presented as a spiritual panacea able to solve your every problem and heal your hurt and take away your pain.
Spiritual abuse is a sensitive term which is typically reserved for matters of sexual abuse or exploitation even by evangelicals. Attempts to include another less obvious category are resisted by evangelicals. I would argue there is also a more subtle form of psychological manipulation which cripples the intellect and retards emotional development which afflicts many evangelicals both knowingly and unknowingly.
I would make one more important distinction referring back to the previous section on the cult-like characteristics of evangelicalism. Individuals who remain in a cult never think they are in a cult until they come out. Then it is obvious to them how blind they were. Recently there has been a spate of articles written by ex-evangelicals testifying to their new found freedom outside the faith. These defections have spawned a spirited response by evangelicals only too eager to cast dispersions on them as apostates and backsliders. To preserve their own equanimity and that of other believers, these departures are seen as evidence of lack of commitment to God and/or elevating human reason above God’s word.
Evangelical ideology breeds a distrust of science and indirectly promotes anti-intellectualism. Evangelicals will compartmentalize the world of science and technology accepting it when it suits them (medicine) and spurring it when it encroaches on their faith (evolution). The non evangelical world is treated with skepticism as an instrument of Satan to bring down the kingdom of God through moral compromise. Liberalism and secularism are shunned as anti-God and morally bankrupt.
18”We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 John 5:18,19)
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:10-12, also Romans 13:12)
8”Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8,9)
If these texts are true and Satan and his wicked cohorts are roaming the world trying to bring down God’s holy people by using the sinful and depraved, we all should be alarmed. If however these are fantastical creations of ancient men in a pre-scientific world where the supernatural was used to explain natural phenomena, they should be treated as such.
I understand how incredibly empowering it is as an evangelical to believe you are locked in a holy battle with Satan. A saints awareness and actions can have dramatic consequences in furthering God’s purpose. The mundane world is but a curtain behind which a galactic unseen war is being waged between good and evil. Evangelicals are taught to envision this epic spiritual battle taking place all around them as they perform their daily routines cognizant of their vital role. It is a sexy alternative to the drab realities of life.
Evangelical leaders and preachers exploit this perspective and ratchet up the importance of political action at all levels. Who is elected on a municipal level can be as important as state and federal levels. Many evangelicals believe they are fighting for the souls of their children and the future of America at the ballot box. This ideological thinking infuses them and forms a distorted worldview through which they filter reality.
Why discuss this in an article about the resurrection?
It is important to stress at the beginning of our study, how difficult it is to penetrate this mental barrier evangelicals have erected. It is like a jury member deciding the verdict in a trial before hearing a single piece of evidence. To make matters worse, they are in love with the accused.
I am not saying Jesus was a criminal although technically he was. He was accused and found guilty of claiming to be the “king of the Jews” which was in direct violation of Roman Law as a threat to Rome’s autonomy and Caesar’s absolute rule.
Carrying on the trial analogy, we are investigating whether there is a preponderance of evidence to support the Christian claim concerning Jesus’ resurrection. And like any court case, facts and logic are the ultimate judge, not opinion and speculation rooted in emotional attachment to the “defendant.”
It is critical Christians detach themselves from their allegiance to the concept of the heavenly Christ and try to evaluate the data objectively and dispassionately. If after doing so, they still think Jesus is who the Bible claims, they have rendered a sound decision which no one should diminish. On the other hand, if the evidence leads them to an alternative conclusion, they should have the intellectual fortitude to reject their previous position and adjust their thinking accordingly.
I don’t want to belabor this point but I feel I must reiterate my own experience briefly. How I used to view Jesus and the Bible is diametrically opposed to how I view them now. I never intended to change my perspective and in fact was trying desperately to strengthen my faith. I thought the only way to find the truth was to start fresh and be completely objective. By lowering my faith guard, I unknowingly was opening my mind to see Jesus as I never had or would have before. It was a subtle and gradual erosion of the foundation (Jesus as the eternal son of God) of my faith. Literally, one day I believed Jesus was my Savior who rose from the dead, and the next day I realized this concept was unfounded. My faith had blinded me to the truth.
Evangelicalism for many is deeply personal and immensely satisfying on a spiritual level. It provides many benefits and comforts in this life and the next. It purports to answer life’s most vexing questions. Unfortunately, it is precisely this perceived intimacy which prevents objectivity. So convinced are evangelicals of “the truth” by their experience with God (Jesus or the Holy Spirit), it is almost impossible to consider they might be wrong.
You don’t give up the truth if you already have it, nor to you look for something you have already found.
Why would anyone not want to go to heaven?
I had a one way ticket to heaven for fifteen years then I gave it up.
I would love to continue to believe in the resurrection! Who wouldn’t? The thought of knowing no matter how bad things are on earth, a glorious future in heaven awaits provides immense comfort. For over a dozen years I lived each day of my life secure in this knowledge. No sacrifice was too big. I willingly gave up worldly pleasures for the sake of Jesus, after all, look what he did for me. It was never a question of wanting to return to my “old way of life.” I hated that life.
I loved being a Christian. I loved everything about it, Bible study, prayer, ministry, humility, abstinence, self control, servanthood, sacrifice and discipline because I was so indebted to Jesus. I had purpose in my life. If you are truly grateful to someone, you will do (or not do) whatever they ask of you. Such was my daily experience.
My quest for the truth
My motivation in “attacking” Christianity has nothing to do with hating God or Christians and everything to do with being true to myself. I vigorously studied the Bible in pursuit of uncovering its truths. Throughout my investigation, I remained stedfast in my love for Jesus until the data proved otherwise. Eventually, the evidence was overwhelming. I would have to deny my own intelligence and capacity for reason to believe Jesus was anything other than a profoundly disillusioned albeit sincere man and his followers equally misguided. I would also emphasize, their ignorance could be both understood and forgiven. Ours, on the other hand, is inexcusable.
Evangelicalism is fear based. Fear of death and the afterlife is what makes one a believer and keeps one a believer. The degree of commitment may vary in terms of investment and sacrifice of one’s life (time, money, energy, personal freedoms, desires, pleasures), but all cling tenaciously to eternal life.
I surrendered the hope of one day going to heaven because the source of this belief — the Bible — no longer could support it. A careful examination of who Jesus was and was not led to the inexorable conclusion the Bible was an unreliable document and not the inspired Word of God.
Christians possess tickets to a place that does not exist but as long as they believe it does, their hope is real.
1”Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
“The details of Jesus’ final week on earth and his resurrection are self contradictory and highly improbable.”
Biblical inerrancy is both a question of factuality and logical probability. We will discuss both throughout these articles. If you are an absolutist when it comes to biblical infallibility, you are bound by the law of noncontradiction. Two things cannot be equally true if they contradict one another. Also, probability will be considered when it comes to whether an event is likely to be true based on logical consistency and common sense. For instance, you cannot definitively say miracles did not occur but you could argue they probably did not with a great amount of certainty.
Our study will focus on whether hypothesizing Jesus and his disciples anticipated his death and resurrection is consistent with what we read in the text. Also, what best explains the actions of his disciples after his death, the wholesale rejection of Jesus as messiah by Jews past and present and current state of Christianity.
The divine coin toss analogy
I use this analogy to illustrate for those unfamiliar with the mind of an evangelical what the world of probability looks like to them.
A coin tossed will come up heads fifty percent of the time, every time. However, the chances of it coming up heads ten times in a row are 1/1024, thirty times in a row about 1/30000000. This is a matter of probability not possibility. Most of the miracles recorded in the Bible are scientifically impossible.
But what if God is doing the flipping? Then the odds are zero. God can make a coin come up heads an infinite number of times in a row, if he so chooses.
This analogy may seem foolish but I assure you when it comes to the God of the Bible, He is the God of impossibility not just improbability. The resurrection from the dead is impossible but that doesn’t stop Christians from believing it is FACT because God can do anything He pleases, even raise the dead!
Evangelicals: God’s Superheroes and Defenders of the faith
13I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:1-4)
I remember when I realized God had endowed me with his holy spirit (John 14:16,17) and the impact it had on my life. It was transformative. The same resurrection power God used to raise Jesus from the dead resided in me waiting to be unleashed. I lived feeling unstoppable and invincible. My body was the temple of God’s spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). He would never let anything happen to me unless it was for his purpose and glory (Rom. 8:28).
Each day of my Christian life, I dedicated myself to service for God. I was after all “a new creation” and “an ambassador for Christ” (2 For. 5:17,20). I was in possession of the greatest truth the world has ever known and I would never let it go.
For many evangelicals the vault of faith is tightly closed and locked because they believe inside they are the guardians and defenders of God’s sacred truth.
Evangelicals consider themselves protectors of truth not seekers of truth. They may pretend to be open minded when conversing with others but their true intent is to convert you to their way of thinking. They operate on the assumption they know what’s best for you because your judgment is clouded by a sin nature. You are a depraved sinner incapable of understanding the things of God unless he shows you.
14”The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. “(1 Cor. 2:14)
This vault of faith cannot be opened from the outside. It falls to every evangelical to be willing to entertain the possibility their beliefs might be in error. Doubt is the first step on the path to discovery and nothing makes one hold on to something tighter than fear of losing it. This is the predicament of being a believer.
Seeing the Bible is nothing less than perfect divine revelation blinds one to objectivity and prevents an honest, critical appraisal of the biblical text. Unless the vault of faith is opened enough to allow a sliver of reasons light to shine in, a believer will reflexively discount and dismiss anything that threatens it.
Without a body or witnesses there is no proof.
The facts of the resurrection are these: First, nobody saw Jesus rise from the dead and vacate the tomb. Second, belief in the resurrection began because the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body was gone. Third, there was not a single independent witness to corroborate what Mary and others claimed to have seen. The testimony of a handful of Jesus’ closest followers —after the fact— is the only “evidence” Jesus rose from the dead. Fourth, the gospel records are unreliable as objective and credible sources because they were written exclusively by those seeking to promote belief in Jesus as the heavenly messiah.
Christians wrote the gospels not historians. It may be termed “historical fiction” at best.
A verdict demands incontestable evidence free of prejudice.
Christian apologists love to talk about the many “eye witnesses” of Jesus’ resurrection as the most powerful proof of its historicity.
Let’s speculate for a moment. If you were God and wanted to convince the world of your son’s resurrection, wouldn’t you leave him in a sealed tomb only to make a grand exit for everyone to witness as an angel rolled away the stone guarding its entrance? Wouldn’t this be far more persuasive than a “secret” resurrection during the night with not a single eye witnesses? They way it is said to have happened would ideally suit “the stolen body theory.”
Three of the four gospel explicitly describe the women arriving at the tomb to find the body gone and the stone rolled away. Only Matthew includes a sealed and guarded tomb which is opened by an angel who rolls away the stone to reveal it empty. If this were true, when did Jesus leave and how if the tomb was closed? The only explanation would be his body was glorified simultaneous to his resurrection while in the tomb allowing him to pass through solid rock. This seems to be contradicted in John’s gospel but implied in Luke. But this makes Jesus an apparition or “spirit” (Lk. 24:37) and undermines the doctrine of the physical bodily resurrection.
Christians adamantly maintain Jesus had a physical resurrection; otherwise, it would be easy to explain it away as merely a vision from the religiously addled minds of his closest most intimate followers. However, if Jesus truly rose from the dead as predicted, the narratives would be far more consistent and vastly different.
Many people claim to have had a paranormal or mystical experiences with God, demons, ghosts, spirits, voices, visions, a dead relative and even aliens. For some it is regular and for others it is occasional. Most of us can attest to at least one time when we thought we heard or saw something strange or unusual but later it turned out to have a natural explanation.
There are many explanations as to why this happens. The mind sees what it wants to see often based on people’s predilections and beliefs. It plays tricks on people causing it to interpret shadows and sounds in accordance with our belief system and realities. Voodoo priests in Haiti see things different from Snake charmers in the Appalachian Mountains. Those with particular mental disorders are more prone to these kind of experiences. In the case of Mary Magdalene, several factors may have converged which contributed to her sightings of Jesus.
First, her psychological state of mind. We learn from the long version of Mark’s gospel Jesus healed her by casting out seven demons (Mark 16:9). Unless on believes she was literally demon possessed, this may suggest she suffered from Dissociative Disorder Identity, or what used to be referred to as “Multiple Personality Disorder.” The diagnosis is not important. What is notable would be her propensity for hearing voices and having visions which were her reality. Mary’s mental stability may have been one of the key factors in the genesis of the resurrection myth.
Second, belief in angels and spirit was common in Judea among many Jews. This supernatural world superseded the physical world because it was where God resided. He encountered the natural world via his holy spirit or a divine messenger.
The coming of the kingdom promised an increase in the activity of angelic and demonic forces. The context of John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministries was the intrusion of the spiritual world into the physical world. From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry involved the exercise of God’s power through him in exorcising demons who were thought to bring sickness and disease (Mark 3:23-29, Lk. 13:10-16, Acts 10:38).
38″ …how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
Third, belief in being raised from the dead was not unknown. The gospels record Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s of Nain’s son and of course Lazarus. The classic prophets, Elijah and Elisha, each testify to raising someone from the dead. Isaiah and Ezekiel include the concept of resurrection. Later Judaism believed in a future general resurrection of the righteous to populate restored Israel (Matt. 22:28, John 11:24).
It is important to point out, Mary’s initial understanding was simply Jesus had been physically brought back to life. She would have had no understanding of the more evolved concept of Jesus’ glorification and ascension. Knowledge of the resurrection was fluid and changing to suit the obvious reality that Jesus was no where to be found.
We can imagine as news spread about Jesus’ alleged resurrection, initial curiosity would be at a fevered pitch. Many would have demanded to see him in the flesh for proof. The testimony of a bunch of women and his close disciples would have limited persuasive force to the hundreds of doubters and would-be followers. When Jesus failed to materialize the recently ascended heavenly messiah notion was born. All that remained was his imminent return to fulfill his role as Israel’s redeemer and validate the experiences of his followers.
The most effective tool used by these first “Christians” was fear. The gospel was more about escaping God’s imminent wrath than a future state in heaven. Admission to the messianic kingdom was a by-product of belief not the primary reason for it. Christians were fear mongers scaring people into accepting Jesus or risk facing the dire consequences of rejecting him. In the end, neither Jesus or the kingdom arrived.
Fourth and fifth, the tomb was empty and it was twilight. While these two factors alone might not have stimulated a sighting of Jesus and/or angels, together with the aforementioned could have created a perfect storm in the unstable mind of Mary. Her tireless devotion to Jesus for healing her would cause her to believe he was alive. It was a short walk to this conclusion for one so desperate to believe it.
Note to Reader: These accounts were written forty years after the events and were subject to embellishment and modification as time went on. What Mary actually saw originally may have been prodded by something as innocent as a dancing shadow at a burial tomb during the pre-dawn hours. Her mental condition coupled with an empty tomb interpreted this as the human form of Jesus. Later she attached more meaning and even words to it. Her motives may have been selfish, to gain instant respect and recognition within the Jesus community. Which of course she did!
At this point, I would urge the reader to resist a faith reflex which automatically diminishes or discounts any attempts to challenge cherished beliefs. Because faith is intensely personal for many, it is difficult to detach one’s emotions when it is being scrutinized. One is inclined to feel threatened and become offended turning any meaningful dialogue into a heated debate.
My default position as a young Christian was to assume the “world” was controlled by Satan, the Deceiver, who had one purpose — to cast doubt in the minds of everyone about Jesus. I fully expected nonChristians to disagree with me. I had been taught resistance to the gospel (based on biblical authority) stemmed from mans’ selfish pride and not credible evidence. It is easier for evangelicals to discount rational arguments rather than to admit their theological boat is full of holes.
We will examine the biblical text in detail with strict attention to factual consistency and logical probability.
Note to Reader: All texts cited are the New International Version and italicized. Bold and underlined text have been added for emphasis and to draw attention to specific words in a given passage.
Verbal plenary inspiration is assumed (Every word is considered divinely authoritative as originally recorded). The full text will be considered “factual” in order to test the inerrancy hypothesis.
We will begin our study by citing the entirety of Mark’s account which we will use as our historical baseline. We will introduce material from the other three gospels for comparison and contrast as demand necessitates. We will note two things: First, where details are in conflict. And second, where details are logically implausible.
On the second point, it should be noted, defenders of biblical inerrancy often default to forced harmonization which presumes each detail is somehow reconcilable no matter how outrageous or far fetched. This has resulted in some incredibly convoluted theories concerning events surrounding the resurrection. But as strange as these are, for evangelicals predisposed to believe all details in a supernatural book written by a supernatural God via his supernatural spirit about miraculous events are historically accurate, it serves to only bolster their faith in the Bible’s veracity. In short, without empirical boundaries to guide us, literally anything can be rationalized as possible for the God of impossibilities.
The resurrection itself defies many laws of science, yet it is believed implicitly without a modicum of evidence. It is a matter of divine omnipotence which is considered factual regardless.
As we work our way through the four gospels both hypotheses will be tested against the aforementioned criteria.
The best myths are rooted in historical fact and watered with lies, often unintentionally.
Before we tackle the texts, I ask the invested reader to understand, I believe the writers and “witnesses” of the resurrection to be earnest in their endeavors. It is because of this Christianity exists today. I do not think any of them intentionally tried to deceive or mislead others. Their profound love for their Master, hope he was not dead and trust in the reports of others served as the impetus and catalyst for the resurrection story.
Many of these first Christians were willing to die for their beliefs is incontestable evidence of their commitment and dedication to defend the basis of this faith.
The Gospel of Mark (16:1-8), [9-20*]
For the sake of the inerrantist position, we will assume all details are accurate and refer to them as “facts” subject to analysis and comparison. Those who concede a “general inerrancy” view must also be willing to apply this relativity to the divine authority of the entire Bible. This is the all or none standard of absolute infallibility.
1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
*The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20. But this does not mean they do not reflect a later attempt to merge the earlier traditions. And more importantly, unless you believe in divine inspiration, they have immense literary value regardless.
9When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.
12Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
14Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.
15He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
19After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”
We begin with Mark’s narrative because it is generally assumed to be the earliest and perhaps most accurate. It is also the briefest because a longer ending is believed to have been deliberately removed and an alternative ending substituted to accommodate multiple traditions. Interestingly, this is the first piece of evidence undermining the resurrection.
Mark’s original ending was incompatible with later traditions, so the more reliable text was excised because it challenged the veracity of the other accounts. In its place an ending which conflates the varying accounts was added.
The first textual detail of note is the motivation of the various women for going to the tomb. It is also one of the most revealing pieces of information. Astonishingly, the reason for visiting the tomb was to anoint or embalm Jesus body for burial, not to await his resurrection. It begs the question, Did these women know about Jesus’ predicted resurrection like the disciples (vs. 7)?
Jesus would be raised from the dead and subsequently meet them in Galilee as previously arranged. If we compare Luke’s narrative, “Remember how he told you” (Lk. 24:7), it is clear the women had been informed and “then remembered his words,” (Lk.24:8), so like their male counterparts, they too had resurrection memory loss.
Therefore, from Mark and Luke’s accounts we can infer Jesus had informed not only the “Twelve” of his impending arrest, crucifixion and resurrection (Matt. 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19), but other of his followers as well. Yet all of them forgot. Neither his arrest or gruesome death was able to prod their memories into recalling the promise of his glorious resurrection.
On this note, it is somewhat remarkable John’s gospel also records Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus embalming Jesus body for burial (John 19:38-41). Either they completely forgot about Jesus promised resurrection or they had no idea it was going to take place?
In previous blogs, we discussed multiple reminders, object lessons and teachings:
- The nativity stories (Matthew, Luke) are explicit in announcing the birth of Jesus as, “The king of the Judeans” (Matt. 2:2). Those who witnessed the event would no doubt eagerly track Jesus throughout his life awaiting his coming out as messiah. Jesus never exercised this role for a single minute while alive which meant, if you believe the Bible, it would occur after his death/resurrection.
- “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. (Luke 1:68)
The above text is part of Zechariah’s song. It suggests he viewed Israel’s redemption as as good as complete because John and Jesus had been born.
- 5″For even his own brothers did not believe in him.”(John 7:5) This verse has far reaching implications in light of the plausibility of them not knowing their brothers messiahship. We have previously established it was not a “secret” but had been amply attested to.
- Jesus’ baptism and John’s ministry (see excursus)
- The “sign of Jonah” (Matt. 12:39,40) which specifically predicts his death and resurrection after “three days and nights” like Jonah in the belly of the fish (see excursus for further discussion)
- Anointing at Bethany where the recently resurrected Lazarus lived and where Jesus is “anointed” for burial in anticipation of his crucifixion
- Triumphal entry to Jerusalem in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 prophecy of a coming king and kingdom where he is hailed as victorious king of Jerusalem
- Lord’s Supper which graphically pictured his death and the promise of a future kingdom when he would next partake with his disciples
- Parables which reiterated both Jesus’ return and the need for diligence and alertness in light of its importance. It is incredibly ironic Jesus devoted so much teaching to the need for his followers to be alert and ready yet no one was prepared
- Sheep and Goats which graphically portrays Jesus return as “coming like the son of man” on the clouds (Daniel 7:13).
- Wedding Banquet which depicts the qualification for righteousness in the coming messianic kingdom
- Ten Virgins which portrays Jesus as the returning bridegroom
- Ten Bags of Gold used to stress the importance of being responsible stewards until “the master” returns
- The Tenants which illustrates the death of Jesus and his disciples and the infliction of punishment on the religious leaders for this crime.
- John’s narrative makes repeated mentions of the future role of the Holy Spirit (John 14 & 16) as being contingent upon Jesus returning to heaven to send it (him). He opens his discourse with these words (below).
1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)
- Jesus engages the Pharisees and Sadducees in a discussion on marriage after “the resurrection” (Matt. 22:23-32).
- He discusses the sonship of the messiah with the Pharisees in the context of Psalm 110:1 (Matt. 22:41-45).
- And if there was any doubt the disciples knew about his future role as returning messiah, the following passage is explicit.
3”As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
If we step back and look at the totality of “reminders” Jesus provided during his life and particularly this final week, forgetfulness is inexcusable and inconceivable.
It takes more faith to believe Jesus repeatedly taught and reminded his disciples of his resurrection yet all forgot than to believe in the resurrection itself. Even the religious leaders “remembered” and made arrangements to prevent a false resurrection claim.
“62The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63“Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first” (Matt. 27:62-64).
While Matthew may have thought exposing this secret conspiracy would help to bolster the resurrection story, it only raises more inconsistencies and absurdities.
First, this only makes sense if his disciples anticipated the resurrection. Clearly they had no idea about this since not a single one visited the tomb except to embalm Jesus, the exact opposite reaction. You would think it should have been packed with the faithful anticipating the resurrection.
Second, can we really believe not a single follower of Jesus noticed a band of armed Roman guards at Jesus tomb and didn’t wonder why they were there? Why did they think they were guarding a dead body? Would seeing Jesus death not evoke a powerful reaction which would then bring to mind the glorious promise of his resurrection to follow? Did Jesus not think to again remind those who attended his crucifixion of his resurrection to follow? What about the earthquake or walking dead recorded by Matthew? Surely one of these would jolt their memories.
Unfortunately, the abrupt ending of Mark’s record leaves us wondering what pertinent details have been expunged. It closes with the women fleeing the tomb “trembling, bewildered” and so “fearful” they “said nothing to anyone.” We must turn to the other gospels to flesh out the narrative at this point.
Luke’s account records the women remembering what he had told them about his arrest, death and crucifixion.
“6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8Then they remembered his words” (Lk. 24:6-8).
According to Luke, it took the two men (angels) in bright shining clothes to stir their remembrance. This does not excuse their long term memory loss though. It makes them as culpable as the disciples for failing to remember an event of immense importance. The moment Jesus died, they were already planning his burial (Lk. 23:55,56).
Mark and the other gospels record three separate occasions when Jesus directly and specifically told them of his impending arrest, death and resurrection (see Mk. 8:31,32; 9:31,32; 10:32-34). Again we must ask, why didn’t the fulfillment of the first two not remind them of the third? Whenever Jesus spoke of his death he also included his glorious resurrection. We now turn to Matthew’s version of events.
The Gospel of Matthew (28:1-20)
1”After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew’s account introduces unique material which is impossible to reasonably reconcile with the other three gospels. It proposes the women arrive to find a sealed tomb guarded by a detail of Roman guards. And while this is an obvious attempt to debunk the “stolen body theory” (vs. 13-15) popular at this time, it creates multiple problems for the other accounts.
The first is a guarded sealed tomb which is only mentioned here.
65“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard” (Matt. 27:65,66).
Matthew stresses the securing the tomb with both a “seal” and a “guard” (Note: the term ‘guard’ is a collective noun signifying multiple soldiers as indicated by the narrative). His purpose is to establish beyond doubt Jesus could not leave the tomb undetected. And this very fact, if true, while serving to firmly establish the resurrection completely contradicts the other accounts as well as raising a host of logistical problems.
Second and third are a “violent earthquake” and “an angel of the Lord” who comes “down from heaven” and goes to the tomb to roll back the stone and sit on it. These are profound details which realistically cannot be harmonized with the three other gospels.
Forgetting for the moment it is reasonably unimaginable these graphic details are missed by the other writers. Only those unwilling to accept these incongruences will somehow try to force a harmony. However, the theological repercussions of Matthew’s account are more profound.
First, implicit in this account is the notion Jesus had already vacated the tomb. The earthquake and the angel draw attention to this fact because neither the guards or women witness Jesus leaving the tomb. The implication is he had already left. But in what form? In order to exit a sealed solid rock tomb he would have to possess an immaterial body. This negates a physical bodily resurrection which is inferred in the other accounts. In fact, this detail is critical to the other writers for establishing Jesus physical resurrection.
The discovery of an open tomb (Mark, Luke, John) led to the unmistakable conclusion it was necessary to remove the rock in order for Jesus to escape. Now all that was needed was an actual sighting of a physical Jesus. One never came. Instead, the gospels describe a quasi-physical/spiritual or “glorified” body capable of transforming between both dimensions, at once passing through locked doors but capable of being touched and eating.
If this is the case, why remove the stone? It would be far more compelling to leave it in place for the religious leaders who would then discover a sealed empty tomb! Surely God in his omniscience would know anything less would cause the stolen body theory.
The reason the glorification concept arose was because only a few followers could claim to have encountered Jesus. Eventually, an alternative explanation was needed; hence, the invisible Jesus who appears and disappears at will. As time went on without more encounters, the ascension theory was proposed, whereby, Jesus was replaced by the holy spirit.
Historically, it is almost beyond question these women did discover a tomb with no body that morning. This opened the door to the possibility of a resurrection, but one thing was needed to confirm it — a literal living body.
If Mary did suffer from mental illness such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, her ability to separate fact from fantasy would be impaired. Her initial report may have been she had a real encounter with the physical Jesus or actual angels. However, it is just as likely if she saw an apparition which she thought was Jesus, it would be just as affirming.
I believe after Mary’s report some of Jesus followers visited the tomb in hopes of “seeing” their risen master but were unsuccessful. The Galilean disciples may not have left yet and as Luke and John’s gospels suggest, investigated Mary’s claim before leaving. It would be on their return visit for Pentecost when gathered together some began to “see” Jesus.
Let’s assume for a moment Jesus rose from the dead. Wouldn’t we expect it to have happened much differently with everyone’s eternal destiny at stake?
Why not leave the stone in place only to have an angel roll it away and Jesus walk out? Why not have hundreds or thousands of his followers holding vigil awaiting his glorious emergence as promised? Or, what if the sealed and guarded stone was still in place when Jesus began to appear to his followers. Then the Jewish leaders and guards would open the tomb to discover to their astonishment the body was gone. Or why not have Jesus return to the streets of Jerusalem for all to see he was alive like the “holy ones” in Matthew’s account (Matt. 27:52). Any of these would prove irrefutably Jesus did rise from the dead.
There is not a shred of independent (non biblical) or logical (non contradictory) evidence for the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead. On the other hand, the evidence to support the “mystical resurrection experience” is overwhelming.
The only other information provided is his rendezvous with his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. This suggests Jesus must have transported himself supernaturally and undetected while the disciples walked. Also, this implies the disciples believed the women’s report, otherwise they would never have walked the great distance back to Galilee. And surely Jesus would not have physically walked when he could easily have meant them in Jerusalem where they were gathered and saved them a long trip. So why Galilee?
If we compare this with Luke and John where Jesus meets his disciples in Jerusalem, we are left wondering when this occurred? Did he meet them before or after Galilee? Neither prospect makes chronological or logical sense.
This disparity would be of little consequence had Jesus returned; however, over time questions would arise as to why his disciples did not remain in Jerusalem for the resurrection. Early traditions such as Mark and Matthew did not try to hide this fact.
Luke explicitly teaches his first encounter with his disciples was on Easter, the day of his resurrection. This means according to Mark and Matthew, he and/or the angels tell the women he will meet them in Galilee but then changes his mind and instead preemptively meets them first in Jerusalem (actually his first encounter after the women would be with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Lk. 24:13-15). But there is no information other than Matthew of the Galilean meeting. Why was this meeting necessary since obviously Jerusalem was where the gospel would start (see, Lk. 24:47, Acts 1:8)? What was the significance of the Galilean tradition?
The most plausible explanation is first it was impossible to deny Jesus’ core followers had returned home after Passover. Here they remained for fifty days until returning to Jerusalem for Pentecost unaware of what awaited them. Upon arrival the resurrection story had been firmly planted within the Jerusalem church. They would be faced with the dilemma of rejecting it as they had when first learning from the women before departing. Or, they could consider it and ask God to reveal the risen Jesus to them. Soon these Galilean disciples would share a collective encounter with the mystical Jesus. This may be alluded to in Acts.
14They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
The attempt by Luke to fuse his gospel to his Acts narrative is readily apparent and appears synthetic. Acts 1:3c (“He appeared to them over a period of forty days…”) is incompatible with the close of his gospel where multiple textual markers demand we place Jesus’ ascension on the day of his resurrection (see below).
We may surmise his close association with Paul may have necessitated he modify his second work to include an extended post resurrection stay on earth. This allowed for the possibility of multiple returns for personal visitations especially in the case of Paul to endorse and authenticate his apostleship.
When we compare the four accounts, Matthew’s “Pentecost” takes place on a mountain in Galilee. Mark’s original ending is lost and a confluence of two traditions is recorded in the long ending. Luke and John make no mention of Galilee and instead imply nothing whatsoever transpired there. In their scenario, the disciples never left Jerusalem but like the other gospels their “doubt” is central to the narrative.
John’s final chapter which many consider inauthentic (Since 20:30,31 appears to be the original conclusion) may reflect an attempt to incorporate the Galilean tradition by a later hand. Chronologically and logically, it seems completely out of place. When did this outing occur and why were the disciples back to fishing after being commissioned and anointed as apostles?
I would hypothesize the Galilean disciples were preparing to return home as soon as possible after Jesus’ death. They were unable to travel until Sunday morning because of a phenomenon called a “Double Sabbath.” This occurs when the final Passover Sabbath or High Sabbath (which follows Passover and can occur on any day of the week) is immediately preceded or proceeded by the weekly Sabbath. A super Sabbath occurs when the High Sabbath of Passover falls on a Friday (the weekly Sabbath). In the case of Jesus death which occurred on the Day of Preparation immediately prior to the High Sabbath and was then followed by the weekly Sabbath preventing anyone from working (in the case of the women who were to anoint Jesus’ body) or traveling (in the case of the disciples who were eager to flee Jerusalem. “All forsook him and fled” (Mk. 14:50, see also, Matt. 26:56, Luke 22:47f. & John 18:1f. ). Thus for two days they could not work or travel.
The reason for the women going to the tomb around sunrise was they were eager to clean and anoint Jesus’ body for permanent burial. Unable to do it the day of his death because there was not enough time since it was almost sundown (the Sabbath), they had to wait two agonizing days to tend to the body of the man they loved so dearly.
Upon discovering the empty tomb, the women thought the body had been stolen (Jn. 20:2). What other option was there? The tradition of Mary’s personal encounter with an angel(s) and/or Jesus is so strong as to demand acceptance. She had mystical encounters at different times with Jesus and an angel(s). We can deduce from the four gospels she made multiple trips to the tomb.
They raced back to tell the disciples who were preparing to depart. It is unlikely they feared Rome or the Jewish leaders since in everybody’s mind Jesus’ death effectively ended all messianic activity. Mary at this point had probably only seen an angel who told her Jesus was risen which was relayed to the disciples. During a subsequent visit she would encounter Jesus. It seems undeniable Jesus disciples quickly discounted Mary’s and the women’s visions as foolish” (“Their words seemed to them like nonsense,” Lk. 24:11). Peter and perhaps John went to investigate for themselves. They had no such encounter and concluded the body had been stolen and returned to Galilee. It is telling, if the story were true, the disciples had been previously told by Jesus himself of his death and resurrection but had somehow forgotten. Then even after being told directly by Mary of the empty tomb and angelic messenger(s) who conveyed the news — they still refused to believe.
I have often asked myself why the gospel writers portrayed Jesus’ followers this way. They were not authors as much as compilers and editors. They had to make use of the available information which was generated soon after the events recorded. That Jesus Galilean followers were no where to be found until Passover was plain. That initially when informed by Mary of the empty tomb and the angels message of Jesus’ resurrection they scoffed at the possibility. As the Jerusalem church began to spread the resurrection story, many would ask where Jesus’ inner circle of disciples were. The Jerusalem followers would be only too eager to relate how incredulous his disciples were while they believed. By the time the disciples returned to embrace the resurrection story themselves, news of their original skepticism had taken root. It could not be omitted from the growing traditions concerning the resurrection story though Matthew does refer to “some doubters.”
Fifty days later during the festival of Pentecost, the Galilean disciples returned oblivious to what was about to confront them. During their absence, Mary and other local followers of Jesus were claiming to have seen Jesus alive. They were in a conundrum. Do they rebuff these disciples or seek a personal encounter themselves?
Because Matthew alone includes the sealed tomb, guards, earthquake and angel of the Lord removing the stone, and most importantly a personal encounter with the risen Jesus the other gospels must follow it. This raises the question, “Why did they wonder where Jesus was?” It is clear from Matthew they understood Jesus had risen because they witnessed an angel unseal the empty tomb, then inform them Jesus had risen, then Jesus himself appeared to them. So why in Luke and John which necessarily must record a second visit are they still confused? It is to these two accounts we now turn.
Side Note: Throughout the gospels John and Jesus emphasize the immanence of the kingdom. The actual tense suggests it had already arrived. The writer could have chosen a future tense but instead he chose the perfect tense emphasizing a complete action with the results continuing into the present.
“Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14b,15, also Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7)
In the mind of these two Last Days prophets, they viewed the kingdom of God like a coming storm. On the leading edge were tell tail signs the full magnitude of the storm was soon to arrive. For Jesus and John it meant “preparing” for Yahweh’s arrival. This meant sounding the call for repentance.
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” [Mal. 3:1] —
3“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” [Isaiah 40:3](Mark 1:2-3)
These dual verses quoted in the opening verses of Mark provide the picture of John’s ministry. Both passages in their fuller context describe a literal and figurative example of preparing for the Lord’s arrival. Malachi describes the purification of the priesthood prior to the Lord’s coming. Isaiah describes the literal repairing of the “Royal” or “King’s Highway” to symbolize the return of the holy remnant from captivity to Zion perhaps borrowing from this earlier text.
8And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:8-10)
Jesus and John were promoting righteousness in keeping with the qualifications for the kingdom. This is pictured in the parable of, “The Wedding Banquet” (Matt. 22:1f.) where “wedding clothes” represent righteousness and those not wearing proper attire are thrown outside “into the darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
20”Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst [‘entos’ or “within you”].” (Luke 17:20,21)
There is some debate over the meaning of the adverbial phrase (see above). It would seem to favor the idea righteousness which cannot be seen is the hallmark of the kingdom of God.
Another telltale sign of the beginning of the kingdom was the proliferation of miracles specifically exoticisms. This was also part of the preparatory phrase of the kingdom since it was essential to overcome Satan and his demonic forces before God could establish his righteous rule. Jesus confrontation with the Devil in the wilderness immediately after Jesus baptism illustrates this new order he is about to establish.
38“… how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”(Acts 10:38)
The gospel of Luke 24:1-53
1”On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8Then they remembered his words.
9When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
13Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles a from Jerusalem. 14They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16but they were kept from recognizing him.
17He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. 18One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
It is clear from Luke’s account, there are no guards, earthquake or angels and the women find the tomb already open (“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,” vs. 2). Also they enter the tomb (vs. 3) which Matthew does not record specifically. Instead the angel outside the tomb on the rock tells them Jesus has risen and invites them to “come see the place where he lay,” (Matt. 28:6). Luke’s version has the women enter the tomb (vs. 3). While wondering where Jesus was they are greeted by the two men in gleaming white clothes who then inform them.
An harmony of the two seems implausible. Assuming Matthew’s account precedes Luke’s because the stone has already been rolled away, the women would then enter the tomb to be informed again Jesus had risen. Then they would depart to tell the disciples but along the way are met by Jesus himself (Matthew) who repeats the angels message to meet him in Galilee.
Also, Luke is adamant in stating the women did not see Jesus (vs. 22,23) but Matthew records the opposite. Again we are faced with a major chronological tension. When did Jesus appear to the women and how many times? No mention of this is made in Luke and according to John (to be discussed next), Mary encounters Jesus after informing the disciples the tomb is empty. A hodgepodge of conflicting details create a convoluted timeline for strict inerrantists that exceeds the limits of plausibility.
Chronologically, Matthew’s meeting takes place first as they go to inform the disciples Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee. But they stop and return to the empty tomb and encounter the angel(s) again (Mark). They then tell the disciples (Luke). Peter (Luke and John) and John (only John) go to investigate for themselves. Mary returns alone and encounters two angels who are inside the tomb (Jn. 20:12). Then Jesus asks why she is crying (Jn. 20:13) and she says, “Because they have taken away my lord and I don’t know where they have put him” (Jn. 20:13). He asks her again and she turns around, sees him but mistakes him for the gardener (Jn 20:15). But according to Matthew she has already met Jesus having arrived “at dawn” (Mt. 28:1). And according to John, this meeting takes place while it is, “yet dark” and, “the stone had been removed from its entrance” (Jn. 20:1) suggesting the first visit. But according to Mark, the women visited the tomb “after sunrise” (Mk. 16:2) and Luke marks the time as “very early” in the morning implying shortly after sunrise. Because there are specific time indicators, John has to be first followed by Matthew then the other two gospels but the presence of a sealed tomb in Matthew renders this logically impossible unless one supposes the tomb was resealed and then unsealed again, a far fetched rationalization. And the mention in Luke the women “didn’t find his body” (24:22) means Luke precedes both Matthew and John who record encounters.
The simples explanation is usually the right explanation.
The resurrection story spawned multiple traditions both written and oral which evolved over several decades. They were a mixture of fact and fiction, although for those who believed the resurrection was real, it was all fact. By the time the gospel writers composed their works (70-100AD), Christianity had grown significantly and so had their understanding of Jesus. These writers drew from this pool of traditions and customized them to suit their narratives. The possibility four separate writers would construct works which could be perfectly harmonized would be a miracle in itself. If however, they were solely the product of fallible men, we would expect exactly what we have represented in the Bible.
The gospel of John 20:1-29
1”Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we [the plural pronoun here accommodates the presence of the other women though not mentioned specifically] don’t know where they have put him!”
3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
10Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
We have touched upon many of the details from John’s version of events in our study of the other three accounts. However, some details remain critically unique to the fourth gospel.
The first glaring omission is any mention of an angelic visitation to inform them of Jesus’ resurrection. If true, John’s account must necessarily precede all others. But the stone has already been removed which is impossible to reconcile with Matthew. Matthew can’t precede John because the women have encounters with both angels and Jesus which would preclude them from not knowing Jesus whereabouts (vs. 2).
Next John sees fit to draw specific attention to the strips of linen (vs. 5-7), a detail included by Luke also (Lk. 24:11). This information seems factual but inexplicable to the resurrection story. Where did Jesus get a change of clothes? Later Mary would mistake Jesus for a gardener suggesting he was clean and clothed since when looking at him she is unfazed. John offers no explanation for the linen. I would argue it is consistent with the stolen body theory. If some of his disciples did take his body, they would certainly wash and clothe Jesus before taking him into the heat and sun. They would leave his bloody sweat stained clothes behind. It is no wonder Peter was puzzled (Lk. 24:12). A logical reason as to why they are noted as being separate (Jn. 20:7) may indicate the cleaning anointing operation was performed delicately and solemnly. The linen was carefully and reverently removed and folded, not haphazardly discarded.
Also, why was it “from the scripture” and not from Jesus himself the disciples were to learn of the resurrection? Should the writer not have said instead, “The disciples had not yet remembered what Jesus had told them repeatedly concerning his arrest, death and resurrection?” The writer seems to be making an excuse for their lack of recall.
(Note: There are no verses in all of Hebrew prophecy which speaks of the messiah dying and rising from the dead. The closest would be the “one like a son of man” prophecy of Daniel 7:13, but contextually this is a collective reference to the “holy ones” of Israel and not to a single individual.)
This little notation is potentially devastating to the resurrection story. If the “disciple who Jesus loved” (vs. 2,4,8) is the same John as the writer, he is confessing his unawareness was due to a failure to understand from the scriptures (Hebrew prophecy) and not from Jesus himself. Luke makes a similar point in Jesus’ meeting of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Lk. 24:25-27,32).
John then makes a staggering comment. “Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8). Commentators are divided on the meaning of “believed.” Some suggest this disciple believed Jesus body had been stolen not resurrected. Others think this disciple alone believed in Jesus resurrection while Peter remained confused. The next verse must be considered before rendering an interpretation.
John notes parenthetically in verse nine, “They still did not understand from scripture Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Is “the other disciple” included in this? Or is the other disciple the writer who in this verse separates himself from the other disciples, in effect saying, “I saw and believed although the other disciples (“they”) still did not understand?” This would seem to coincide perfectly with his final statement, Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).
If we assume the author is pretending to be the disciple who Jesus loved in order to give his writing credibility, we should not be surprised he has portrayed himself as such. In fact, it is critical to the overall purpose of his gospel. We may surmise it would be far less likely if he were actually “the other disciple” because he would be telling a lie. In the writers mind, he truly believes this disciple believed without the need to see Jesus and was blessed for it.
30”Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30,31)
Evangelical Christians are reluctant to acknowledge the blatant attempt by the author to elevate himself above his fellow disciples. As repeatedly stated, the disciples failure to anticipate and wait for the expected resurrection did not go unnoticed by the Jerusalem church. This was an embarrassment that would not go away. Instead they had to try to offset it. This appears to be John’s attempt to portray himself as the only follower who did not need a personal encounter to believe. In this regard, he serves as the perfect example to his readers. His sole purpose is to persuade his readers to do exactly what he did and not to be like Thomas who required proof.
Excursus 1: Jesus’ baptism and John’s ministry
A discussion on the immense significance of how the biblical details surrounding Jesus’ baptism in light of John’s ministry directly impact our understanding of the historic Jesus. That said, this topic deserves a more detailed analysis than can or should be provided in an article on the resurrection. There is overlap which is why we mention it here briefly.
As always, we will take the Bible at its word, and use similar accounts of an event as appending rather than contradicting each other for the purpose of testing each hypothesis.
We mentioned in a previous article Jesus exhorted his disciples to keep his messiahship “a secret.” New Testament writers used this as an excuse for why tradition did not favor this role prior to his resurrection. We also examined the nativity accounts which seemed to proudly herald his messiahship. The baptism of Jesus also supports the theory, if true, Jesus messiahs was emphatically announced by John at Jesus; baptism and dramatically endorsed by God from heaven.
John’s gospel specifically confirms this with graphic imagery. Prior to this declaration, John is queried as to whether he is the messiah which he denies (Jn. 1:20,24).
29The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”(or, “son of God,“John 1:29-34)
Luke provides additional information.
21When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”(Luke 3:21,22)
From these two passages, it seems the public disclosure of Jesus’ messiahship by God’s prophet and God himself to a crowd of stunned onlookers is undeniable. John describes his future atoning work as “the lamb of God” already intimating his crucifixion.
If true, this would have created immense interest throughout Israel as the long awaited redeemer of Israel had arrived. However, the gospel narratives give no indication Jesus was ever perceived as anything but a prophet. His return to Jerusalem for Passover should have re-ignited messianic hopes but again this does not fit the record.
Jesus did not exercise his messianic office which means either he failed or it would take place after his death. The lack of anticipation for his resurrection by anyone precludes this and supports the theory Jesus and those who followed him thought he would take the throne. His death confirmed he was not and dashed the hopes of his disciples.
Excursus 2: The “sign of Jonah”
The following passage is recorded outside the final week of Jesus’ life so is included here as a final textual consideration.
38Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40, cf. Jonah 1:17)
Most Christians know the traditional period of three days and three nights as fulfilling the prophecy of Jonah. This has posed serious challenges for Christians adhering to a strict inerrant or verbal plenary inspiration view of the Bible, because it is impossible to account for three partial days and nights let alone three full days and nights from the Biblical narrative.
Jesus was buried just before sunset on Friday. This would technically allow for one day even if only for a few minutes prior to sunset. Friday night until Saturday morning would be a full night (one). Saturday sunset until sunset Saturday would be a full day plus the first partial day making two days. Sundown Saturday until sunrise Sunday would mark a full night making two nights. All the gospel accounts explicitly record Jesus had vacated the tomb by sunrise so one cannot add Sunday morning as a day. The amounts to two days and two nights even allowing for only a few minutes of day one or about thirty-six hours. This has led to Christians devising an ingenious method to resolve this apparent problem.
They claim the gospel writers were using a Jewish not Roman method of reckoning which starts a day at sunset. Even today Jewish sabbath (Saturday) begins immediately at sunset on Friday. Thus the few minutes before sundown when Jesus is placed in the tomb count as Friday since Saturday starts technically at sunset. Therefore by the time the tomb is sealed and the sun has set, Jesus has already been in the tomb two days by Jewish reckoning even though it has really only been a couple hours at the most. The third day starts at sunset on Saturday, twenty-four hours later, and is considered Sunday thus making three days. Except, the prophecy is three days and nights according to Matthew, not a general three days. Adding the days and nights by this method still only amounts to two days and two nights (Friday crucified and buried, Saturday night, Saturday, Sunday night. Jesus has risen by Sunday morning). And if we tally the hours assuming Jesus rose from the dead minutes before the women arrived, we are left with approximately thirty-six hours (Friday night c. 6pm until Sunday morning c. 6am), or a day and a half. It is impossible to arrive at three days and nights regardless of a Roman or Jewish method of counting. And if we adopt John’s earlier crucifixion day, the synoptics reliability and two thousand years of Christian tradition are called into question.
The only plausible answer is, like so many prophetic citations, the Christians who were firmly persuaded of Jesus resurrection as the Jesus messiah of Israel, were certain the Hebrew scriptures contained multiple mysteries alluding to this fact. They had only search for them. The story of Jonah thus is seen to contain secret or hidden truth about Jesus. Jonah was trapped in the dark belly of the fish as it descended below the water. Likewise, Jesus was said to have descended to the lower regions of the earth (1 Pet. 3:18-20, Eph. 4:8).
The Jonah story is loosely illustrative but it is not definitive prophecy and offers no proof of divine fulfillment.
The pivotal issue surrounding the resurrection of Jesus is not whether it actually happened or not but whether his followers believed it happened.
The disciples had a real experience of the risen Jesus. The emphasis is on the experience itself regardless of whether it was based in reality.
Had Mary not boasted an actual sighting of the resurrected Jesus, this myth would never have begun. It needed someone to make a determinative claim to prompt others to seek a similar experience. There should be no doubt, whatever her encounters were, they were immensely profound. She communicated this conviction to other of Jesus’ followers thereby creating curiosity and interest. Inevitably driven by a desire to believe their master was alive and so was hope of a coming kingdom, encounters with Jesus spread.
I introduce the topic of ideological programming in this article for this reason. There are myriads of issue that divide Christians all over the world and even two churches on the same street in America. One could almost say, Christians are like snowflakes.
However, the resurrection of Jesus is the one and only belief all must share. The moment you stop believing Jesus rose from the dead is the moment you stop being a Christian.
The resurrection is the foundation of Christianity without which it crumbles to the ground. There are numerous reasons why the Bible should be regarded as a hugely flawed document undeserving of unquestioning allegiance. However, a critical analysis of the gospels record detailing Jesus’ resurrection strikes at the very heart of Christianity. Therefore, if it can be reasonably demonstrated the biblical data is internally self contradictory and logically incompatible, its becomes factually unreliable. And while many may continue believe it, they must confess to it being an irrational belief.
Christians have for too long professed and even celebrated their faith to be non rational defying the limitations of scientific inquiry. I believe non Christians have been delinquent in thoroughly investigating this most cherish doctrine except perhaps in the higher circles of academia. Public scrutiny and exposure of who Jesus was and wasn’t is rarely seen.
My motivation for undertaking this exercise to unmask the real Jesus has a past and present component. When I graduated from seminary my evangelical faith was plagued with doubt. I began a thorough reconstruction of my faith from the ground up keeping Jesus as my central pillar (At the time I thought him unassailable). My sole purpose was not to abandon the faith but to strengthen it. I figured by using the tools and skills I had obtained through eight years theological training, I would be able to rebuild it.
I knew much of evangelicalism had serious biblical deficiencies. I was able to trace these back through its history. Dispensationalism, emotionalism, baptism and the Lord’s supper as non sacramental were obvious departures from traditional Christianity. What I did not realize at the time was I had adopted a purely objective mindset which inadvertently led me to see Jesus as I had never seen before — without a faith bias.
The moment I began to examine Jesus in the glaring light of dispassionate criticism and not the through the cloudy lens of faith, everything was clear.
My new perspective propelled me further and further until I realized my entire Christian faith was based on the mystical experiences of those first Christians. I had been worshipping an ancient superstition.
It took me years of intensive study and research to fully piece together how I got to where I did and why. It was as much an exercise in self discovery as it was in unveiling the biblical Jesus. I began to understand what led me to Jesus as well as why I eventually left him. I also became intrigued with the origins of evangelicalism to better understand how it had so perverted traditional Christianity while boasting to be its most authentic representation of it.
Years went by and still my obsession with Jesus, the Bible, Christian history and in particular evangelicalism would not subside. It consumed my life quite literally. It was all I truly care about. I immersed myself in hours of research each day and night determined to satisfy my appetite for understanding the Bible. Those years turned into decades until finally this part of my quest is over.
Every author struggles to reign in his or her expectations of the value their work. I am no different. Originally, I had hoped to write a book on evangelicalism from an insiders perspective. It would be different in its theological approach. I would try to show the inherent dangers in evangelical ideology for those willing to invest their lives in the faith. The deeper I delved into my study of Jesus, the more I began to realize my objective was changing. Now it was a matter of challenging the very underpinnings of Christianity starting with Jesus’ closest followers.
If my past motivation was intellectual integrity, my current motivation is intellectual activism. For decades I have watched from the sidelines as evangelicals have become more entrenched in all spheres of American society. The ascendancy of Trump has had devastating consequences both at home and abroad. A segment of evangelicalism has been complicit in restricting, removing or reducing the rights of the LGBTQ community, women’s advocacy groups, minorities, immigrants and secularists. Furthermore, they have endeavored to influence foreign policy in keeping with their own apocalyptic world view. Finally, they have attempted to slow down or roll back environmental regulations based on the belief God has placed an expiration date on the earth in accordance with his divine timetable. Man was created to exploit this resource not preserve it.
I know of no other way to stop the spread of evangelical ideology than to attack it at its source — the Bible. It is my hope by exposing the Bible as the grossly fallible work of men and not the divine word of God, we may no longer feel obligated to accord it the level of respect and power it currently enjoys.
It is ironic a book that is so venerated by so many people and has so much influence is so misunderstood. We should be embarrassed for treating it as anything more than the writings of ancient religious men. Men bound by the intellectual limitations of their day but unbound by their religious imaginations.
What do Christians have to fear?
As previously stated, when I started my journey to find the truth, I had no intention of losing my faith and everything it provided. I was extremely content in my relationship with God and Jesus. It was the theological flaws in evangelicalism which first alerted me to the possibility there might be a better representation of authentic Christianity. I just had to find it. Also, the blatant hypocrisy of most evangelicals when compared to plain New Testament teaching seemed to confirm my suspicions. I reasoned if it was the best expression of New Testament Christianity, why were its adherents so lackluster in their faith? Realizing my frustration was not with God but with a theological system (evangelicalism) was the most liberating moment of my life — truly.
I remember strolling in the warm Texas sun past a water fountain on my way to chapel. Instead of going in I went for a walk to talk it out with God. It was then I had a revelation. My error was blaming God for mens’ mistakes. As long as I kept my eyes on Jesus and did not get distracted by manmade systems like dispensationalism, verbal plenary inerrancy, Trinitarianism and inefficacious baptism, God would direct me. When it was all over, it was all over.
In the end, I discovered many things mostly about myself. First and foremost, I realized for almost fifteen years I had invested my entire young adult life in an ancient myth, the fabrication of religious imagination. That was the bad news. The good news was it showed me I, not God, was responsible for turning my life around at seventeen. Faith had unlocked my hidden potential. Think of it as a backwards Wizard of Oz moment.
At the time I didn’t have the confidence in myself to believe I was anything but a failure. I had no academic aspirations whatsoever. I had resigned myself to working in a grocery store for the rest of my life. I wondered if I would ever meet a girl since my insecurities were so severe. It was the power of my faith in God to transform me that unleashed my own inner strength to earn two degrees and become a successful Christian leader. It was as if I wanted God to be proud of choosing me. He was the Father I never had.
Second, by exposing the source of my fears as a Christian, they no longer had power over me. The doctrine of divine chastisement, whereby God, the father, punishes those believers, his children, who rebel against him, to correct or reprove them, is a sinister teaching. Christians use it to threaten apostates or backsliders in hopes of forcing repentance to keep them in the fold, while at the same time reinforcing their own decision as believers.
More than half the population believe in hell. The paralyzing fear of death and the afterlife prevents even the most uncommitted nominal Christian from abandoning the faith entirely. This has spawned millions of tepid believers who subscribe in word only. They rely on a past conversion experience (usually as children) to ensure their future destiny.
Spiritual suicide occurs when someone decides to risk destroying their faith by questioning it for the sake of intellectual integrity. The prospect of losing something that provides among other things eternal hope is beyond consideration for most Christians. They have little to gain and everything to lose.
Fear will always triumph over reason unless one is brave enough to confront the source. A systematic dismantling of biblical authority through careful analysis relying on reason is the only means to this end.
People are free to believe whatever they want, but anybody who thinks the biblical accounts of the resurrection are “true” is guilty of irrational thinking. It is theoretically impossible to reconcile the gospel accounts with each other or logical probability. Nothing about it makes sense except when considered as an experience generated by belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus did not have to rise from the dead for the resurrection story to begin and grow. It only took one person, Mary, to believe he did and pass this conviction on to others. A missing body, an unstable mind with a deep affection for Jesus and an ethos where the miraculous spirit world was intruding on the natural world were all the ingredients necessary to start the resurrection myth.
A final word (and plea)
I have said repeatedly and will continue to do so until the day I die:
If a Christian is determined to believe every word of the Bible is true and divinely inspired, nothing will persuade them otherwise. Faith lives in the heart not in the head. Unless one is willing to consider abandoning the faith if the evidence demands, there is little chance of objectivity. The mere thought of rejecting Jesus is thought by many to be the first step in rebellion.
So if you refuse to look at the evidence with the dispassionate eye of rational criticism, please do not pretend to be following anything more than ancient superstition. And most importantly do not infect others like innocent vulnerable children especially with your untested and unfounded beliefs.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution. Using one’s freedom to encroach on the freedom of others is patently hypocritical and unjust. As long as evangelicals and conservative Christians think it their right to inflict their ideology on others through aggressive political action, Jesus is fair game.
The mixing of politics and religion (sacralism) suggests religion has moved from the private and personal realm to the public square. Here, like anything it is subject to intense scrutiny and blistering criticism whatever the cost may be.
To the degree you are invested in your Christians faith is the level of expectation you have from God. If you make little effort to live a truly biblical lifestyle, you probably don’t expect much from God. However, if you have committed your entire life to God, you probably expect God to reward you for your faithfulness. Therefore if most Christians have not sacrifice much of their time, energy and money to serve God, chances are they are only in it for a place in heaven.
If the resurrection of Jesus (not Jesus himself!) was on trial, and the gospel accounts were the evidence, the verdict would be unanimously against it having happened.
There is not a shred of reliable data to support the writers claim of a literal physical resurrection from the dead. The testimony of the four gospels are so contradictory and circumstantially implausible as to actually undermine they very thing they are trying to prove. However, if we postulate the resurrection was experiential and not actual, and neither Jesus nor his disciples expected it, everything makes perfectly reasonable sense.
The sad truth is, many evangelicals are persuaded, God deliberately made it so only those with the highest degree of faith would believe in it. The nature of faith by definition is trusting in what you cannot see or prove, so the more incomprehensible the resurrection is, the greater the amount of faith to believe it. Those who don’t just lacked sufficient faith.
The post-fact world of evangelicalism
It is astonishing people will elevate feeling something (spiritual experience) is true over knowing (science) it isn’t. Reason and facts are faith’s greatest enemy and ignorance her dearest friend.
An experiences can be real even if what spawn it is not. A child’s experience of Santa Claus is genuine, powerful and noetic. The experience affirms belief in the reality said to have generated it. Alien or ghost encounters are also incredibly persuading to those experiencing them especially if they are pre-disposed to believing in them already.
If you look at all the available data objectively, free of faith bias, it is implausible the resurrection actually occurred. The preponderance of evidence unanimously leads to the conclusion the resurrection took place in the fertile imaginations of the religiously devout. Those who think otherwise are in intellectual denial. Furthermore, unless and until you have made a thorough study of the gospel data, you cannot claim to “know” anything. This is blind faith. It amounts to not wanting to know the truth for fear of what one might find. Eternal hope is at stake.
Here is the logic chain which is only as strong as its weakest link.
Premise #1: The Bible must be divinely inspired at least in part to be relied on as a source of proof (truth) Jesus rose from the dead.
If the Bible is exclusively the work of fallible and finite men and not the inerrant word of God, it has no authority on matters of the miraculous and supernatural.
Premise #2: If the Bible is divinely inspired by a perfect God via his perfect spirit, the text detailing the resurrection must be perfect or credibility is lost. If the accounts conflict, they are unreliable.
Since there were no eye witnesses to Jesus’ actual resurrection, I.e., seeing a dead body come to life, all that remains is encounters with the risen Jesus after he has already been resurrected and left the tomb. With no witnesses of the actual event itself, the only evidence remaining as the experiences of those who claim to have met the resurrected Jesus. Therefore, the four gospels which record this must be consistent and non contradictory or they cannot be trusted. God does not make factual errors.
Premise #3: Preconceived ideas about Jesus or miracles tarnish the truth. One cannot make a pre-determination then rationalize the data to make it fit what they want and hope to be true. If Jesus’ resurrection was factual, a thorough investigation will confirm it. Truth defends itself but a myth requires multiple fabrications to support it.
Since all the gospels were written by Christian believers and not dispassionate historians, there is no reason to suspect any tampering with the text to discredit the resurrection story.
Premise #4: The Bible will be treated as absolutely true and factual and strictly and strenuously judged on this basis for internal consistency and accuracy, as well as logical plausibility. If it fails to satisfy these standards, it should be rejected as carrying unquestionable historical weight on the resurrection of Jesus.
Conclusion: Faith lives in the heart not the head. Belief in the resurrection is not an intellectual pursuit, it is one firmly rooted in escape from the paralyzing fear of death and the hope of eternal life. After belief, many Christians construct elaborate theological systems to support and justify it. Theology is deductive reasoning embedded in the unwavering conviction of the resurrection. All Christian teaching ultimately flows from it and back to it.
Christians will continue to believe in the resurrection no matter how compelling the evidence is otherwise. To illustrate, if aliens came to earth and declared there was no God, many evangelicals and conservative Christians would claim these were demons masquerading as extra-terrestrials to trick the faithful and mislead unbelievers.
In my experience there are only two ways believers exit the faith. Either they have an intellectual awakening typically when go to college or university. This is a product of mental maturity. Or they or someone they love has an emotional crisis that shakes their faith and makes them doubt God. Arguing someone out of their faith is rare. They must initiate the desire to explore the legitimacy of their belief system.
We are all at different places on the path to find truth and meaning in our lives. None of us know what tomorrow will bring. I never thought for a second I would ever desert the faith and abandon Jesus whom I loved.
Throughout my evangelical experience I relied heavily on my ability to analyze and synthesize information. I filtered my reality through a biblical grid that made everything conform to and bolster my Christian worldview. The world made sense and brought me peace and gave meaning to my life. However, always lurking at the back of my mind were questions concerning Christianity. I assumed the more theological knowledge I received and deeper my commitment grew, eventually these would get resolved. They did not.
I have been on a long and arduous journey for many decades. I have dedicated my life to painstakingly combing through the Bible in my quest for truth. It has been extremely rewarding but also has taken its toll on me and those I care about. I have left a wake of hurt and suffering behind me. To say this has been an obsession would not be an exaggeration. Countless sleepless nights and each day consumed by research has been my normal. Many times I wondered if my quest would ever end. Would I finally find the closure I craved?
I do not have all the answers to life’s many riddles but I can say one thing with unbridled certitude. Based on decades of critically interacting with the writings of the biblical authors and Church Fathers, an historical examination of Christianity and evangelicalism and utilizing the principles of logic and reason, Jesus did not literally rise from the dead! His resurrection was an experiential reality based on his missing body. Therefore the Bible is not the Word of God and Christianity is an ancient irrational superstition.
My purpose is not to offend but to inform. These articles are intended to raise questions to provide seeds of doubt which one day may take root and grow. The stakes are getting higher each day when it come to religious belief. Rights and freedoms, environmental viability, political stability, scientific respectability are all threatened by ideological thinking derived from a book which has been given a divine status it neither earned nor deserves. The time has come to dethrone it and replace it with humanism as the rightful ruler of mankind and controller of our destiny.