Without a body or a witness, there is no crime!
I’m not saying Jesus is a criminal, although according to Roman law he was. He is not on trial. I would like us to consider the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a court case. The defendant is the claim it happened as described in the biblical gospel accounts. The prosecution maintains it is historical fiction containing “seeds” of facts watered with fabrications and embellishments. The judge, as always, should be dispassionate objective reasonableness. Using the Bible’s as the key witness of the defense means it must submit to same degree of scrutiny and evaluation as any piece of evidence. One cannot use the Bible as the supreme source of truth and ultimate decider in a verdict unless proven to be absolutely reliable and credible. Anything less is unacceptable and calls into question the Bible’s status as divinely authoritative. Inerrancy is a high bar.
Not a single person in the history of Christianity has ever taken a hard independent and critical look at the biblical data and concluded Christianity is soundly based. Not one, because it unquestionably is not.
The biblical evidence when examined (and not accepted as indisputably true) contains so many contradictions and logical implausibilities making it impossible to accept as true. If you are reading this and disagree, I can bet you have not spent hundreds of hours painstakingly studying every word in the gospels and rigorously comparing them to each other. Furthermore, I am certain you have not taken the position of “devil’s advocate” to argue against their veracity. Christians simply never explore the world of unbelief.
It is impossible to be objective about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead if you are a Christian who is depending on it to get you to heaven!
The above statement is a truism, yet not surprisingly many Christians would strongly disagree with it. Why? Christians assume not being able to disprove something is a powerful argument it exists. Therefore, not being able to disprove Jesus rose from the dead means it is possible he rose from the dead.
I have invested my entire life in pursuit of this claim. I have devoted decades of painstaking and exhausting research to dissecting every verse recorded in the gospels surrounding Jesus’ birth, baptism, life, death, burial and resurrection. I have investigated the birth of Christianity and the work of the Paul (the self proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles). I have examined the many Hebrew texts used by New Testament writers to validate their claims of Jesus’ messiahship and Gentile inclusion in the ancient promises to Israel. I have concluded the only way one can believe the Bible is to already believe the Bible.
Ignorance is a delicate word and highly offensive, yet if pressed, how many Christians can really boast making a study of the Bible their life’s TOP priority? After all, according the them it is God’s sacred word containing the most important truth to mankind — the gospel of Jesus Christ. You would think Christians would spend every spare minute deeply engrossed in mastering God’s inspired word and living it out in their daily lives. Few do, and those who do, are so deeply invested in the faith (teachers, pastors, ministers, professors, authors, speakers) and enmeshed in the evangelical social network so as to only be interested in enriching their own lives. What leader of a church or teacher at a Christian school is willing to give up their career and friends for the sake of intellectual honesty and integrity.
Many evangelical Christians are either in intellectual self denial or simply have no idea how unfounded their faith is. The rewards for not knowing far outweigh the benefit of finding out how baseless Christianity is.
It takes an incredible amount of time and effort to both acquire the skills and knowledge to then apply them to critically appraise the central tenets of Christianity. Nobody goes to seminary as an unbeliever. Evangelical institutions teach presumptively meaning while they may encourage micro criticism they staunchly discourage macro criticism. In other words, non critical doctrines are never challenged as potentially fallacious. Peripheral doctrines, on the other hand, are subject to rigorous analysis in the name of objectivity. Such exercises are quasi-intellectualism posing as hyper-intellectualism. Evangelicals think they are the world’s most dedicated proponents of propositional truth because it is derived from and based on biblical revelation.
I was a product of the evangelical propaganda machine.
I spent eight years immersed in the evangelical academic culture. I understand the power of institutional indoctrination firsthand. It is the constant reinforcement of a narrow ideology through social interaction and a worldview which interprets everything to conform to it. The vast majority of evangelicals never experience the power and impact such exposure can have on an individual.
The world of evangelicalism is split into those who do not know enough to effectively extract themselves from the faith, and those who are too invested to see objectively or even begin to consider leaving the faith. Faith is truly blind and spiritual suicide is not an option for most.
I do have an axe to grind when it comes to evangelicals or evangelicalism, and it is this: Evangelicals claim an unwavering commitment to a literal, historical and contextual interpretation of the Bible and then fundamentally violate it whenever convenient and expedient. I was taught throughout my theological training to let the text interpret itself and not to force preconceived ideas into it. The worst hermeneutical sin one can commit is violating the immediate context of a verse. Only the strict literal meaning is the right meaning. This sounds right and I believed it. Here is the irony.
If one were to abide by this principle of interpretation, without any faith bias, Christianity would disappear. Really what evangelical Christians teach is the opposite.
Evangelicals begin with the unassailable position the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, verbal, plenary Word of God. This conviction is based on circular logic and creative reasoning validated by little more than spiritual encounters with God though his inspired word. It is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. Instead of allowing the evidence and objective reasoning to lead you to a conclusion regardless of what that conclusion is, they start at a conclusion and reason backward to support it. Now there is nothing wrong with this method so long as the evidence supports the hypothetical. However, if the evidence does not, one is forced to reject or modify the hypothetical to conform to the facts. The first Christians, unbound by logic, took a different approach .
They began with the conviction Jesus had risen from the dead, ascended to heaven and would return to earth as the glorified messiah of Israel. This conclusion did not come from a study of the Hebrew Bible before Jesus was given this role. It was deduced after Christians made this determination. And what was the basis of this unwavering conviction? A handful of questionable encounters by Jesus’ closest followers which could not be attested to independently or with numerical significance (The gospels account for around twenty).
The world of these early believers was vastly different to our world today. While many evangelical Christians would like to believe Peter, Paul or even Jesus would feel at home in one of their churches, this is preposterous. The minds of these ancient men were steeped in superstitions of angels and demons. Satan roamed about seeing to devour believers. Demonic possession was commonplace as were angelic visitations both literal and visionary. Miracles were thought to occur regularly. Believing Jesus rose from the dead and made occasional appearances to some of his followers was easily believed. All that remained was to “prove it.”
If you provided someone with a copy of the Hebrew Bible who had never heard of Jesus or Christianity, and asked them to study it for several years. Then asked them what they thought was its central message, they would conclude the promise of Israel’s future restoration. Because this is the focus of the Hebrew canon. Its singular goal is to promote Yahweh as the one and only true God who chose the Israelites as His people to whom He would one day restore the land he had promised. Part of this promise would include a descendant of David through whom God would rule on earth from His heavenly throne. Such was the hope of the first Jewish followers of Jesus.
Jesus had three opportunities to prove his messiahship. First was during Passover when he first accepted the nomination as king of the Jews. He failed. Second, was shortly after Pentecost when belief in the resurrection and his return as heavenly messiah was at a fevered pitch. Again, he failed to return. Third, was during or soon after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (70AD) seemed to provide the most opportune time for God to intervene and inaugurate the messianic kingdom through Jesus. Neither Jesus nor God made an appearance. The death knell for the Jewish arm of Christianity sounded once and for all. Fortunately for Christians, a Pharisee turned convert named Paul had rescued Christianity decades earlier by introducing his own version of the gospel to Gentiles. In doing so, Christianity was free from its Judaistic ties and not subject to the restrictions of the ancient promises.
Of course Christians will not and cannot accept this perspective because it undermines the legitimacy of their faith. Here again, faith creates the facts as Christians want to see them. But if we do accept the central premise of Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus — do the facts support it?
Evangelicals take their theological cues from the New Testament writers who pre-determined Jesus was the messiah prophesied throughout Hebrew scripture based solely on a handful of mystical encounters with the risen Jesus. Then borrowing from the findings of various ecumenical councils dating from the fourth through sixth centuries they claim Jesus was also the eternal Son of God and second member of the holy Trinity. Next, they impose a synthetic theological grid called dispensationalism over the “Old Testament” and use it to bolster their beliefs. This perspective though inventive and relatively recent contradicts centuries of theological traditions and violates some of Christianity’s most fundamental teachings.
From this unassailable position, they interpret the “Old Testament” to conform to it.
Christians are so imprisoned by their fears, they refuse to consider the truth. Though most Christians lives would not change appreciably if they were to leave the faith tomorrow, most cling tenaciously to a faith without theological justification. It is the fear of death and the afterlife and the escape Christianity provides which prevents most from entertaining the possibility their eternal hope is lost.
For years as a dedicated and committed evangelical Christian, I was puzzled by why the hundreds of fellow believers I met in schools and churches were so lukewarm in their faith. While I was excited about the prospect of going to heaven when I died, my focus was on being the most godly Christian on earth today! I woke up each morning determined to be more righteous and holy than the day before. Giving up the pleasures of this world for heavenly riches was no contest. Sacrificing my time and energy in the service of Jesus for others was an honor not a chore. Pursuing sexual gratification or materialism paled in comparison to my passion for Jesus and the satisfaction it provided. Sadly, not many evangelicals shared my devotion.
The day I realized what was ailing evangelicalism, everything made sense. Eternal security guarantees a believer of one day securing heaven no matter how complacent his/her faith commitment is as long as they make “some” effort to be good. The only thing which might jeopardize this promise is a complete denial of Jesus as the provider. Those who reject Jesus as one who died on the cross for their sins run the risk of losing their salvation or of never having it at all. The result of this teaching is a faith full of nominal hypocrites who claim Jesus as their Savior but live a life inconsistent with New Testament expectations of a believer.
The truth is simply Christianity is a faith of the heart not of the head. It is primarily emotional and experiential, not intellectual and rational. It is more about fear than facts. It satisfies the heart not the head. Polls showing how few Christians spend considerable time studying their Bibles testify to the biblical illiteracy pervading the most Christian country in the world. Once a person becomes a Christian in America, they sit back and enjoy the ride.
Back to the Bible. The details recorded in the four gospels offer proof the resurrection did not occur. Jesus had no idea he was going to Jerusalem to die nor had he ever spoken to his disciples about the resurrection. They acted as if they had no idea Jesus was going to rise from the dead, precisely because they had no idea Jesus was going to rise from the dead. Christians might not like this or agree with it, but unless they closely study the accounts, they have no basis to disagree.
Most of us know who “Doubting Thomas” was. He is vilified as the disciple who refused to believe Jesus rose from the dead and demanded proof. When told by the other disciples, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas responded.
“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.” (John 20:25)
The four gospels record not only did none of the disciples go to Jesus tomb to await his promised resurrection, but all of them doubted when told by the women they had seen Jesus alive. Matthew and Luke mention the disciples doubting when on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew) and when Jesus stood in front of them thinking he was “a ghost” (Luke). Christians quickly rationalize this as the product of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. They may have known about his promised resurrection but didn’t actually think it was possible until it actually occurred. End of story… not quite.
It is easy to make excuses for the disciples not keeping vigil for their soon to arise from the dead master and messiah, but the biblical text is not so forgiving.
In previous articles I have provided detailed analysis of the four gospels demonstrating how inconceivable it is the disciples would have or could have forgotten about Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, here I will give a few general highlights and leave it to the reader to research further.
The absence of a single follower at the tomb of Jesus despite a posted Roman guard is inexplicable if the information contained in the gospels is taken as historical. From the lead up to Jerusalem and during the Passover festival, Jesus provided multiple object lessons, parables and instructions detailing the exact nature of his arrest, death and resurrection. The disciples specifically inquire, “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age ” (Matt. 24:3). They were acutely aware of what was to follow his death.
Here were some of the many other clues Jesus provided so his disciples would be fully informed concerning his resurrection. They visited the home of the recently resurrected Lazarus on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy of the coming of a victorious king and his kingdom. Jesus shared a “Last Supper” with his disciples just before his arrest which contained graphic imagery of his death and a promised kingdom. Jesus gave parables which centered around the need for alertness and preparedness for his coming. Jesus provided explicit instruction about the future role of the Holy Spirit which was contingent on Jesus going to “heaven to prepare a place” for his followers and his sending the Spirit to comfort and guide. Jesus delivered an ominous discourse on the Mount of Olives where he made repeated references to the “coming of the son of man” and “bridegroom.” Lastly, we must assume during his six hours on the cross surrounded by his followers, the topic of his resurrection would come up.
All of the above mentioned “reminders” assume the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. However, the incontestable fact (if it isn’t an historic fact, there is no reason why any writer would state it as though it were) not a single follower of Jesus showed any awareness of this concept is the greatest evidence none was given. If we hypothesize, the resurrection story began after Mary (and perhaps the other women) had some kind of mystical encounter with Jesus and/or an angel informing her, everything fits neatly and naturally into place.
At this point most Christians will have a powerful faith reflex preventing them from considering this option. This automatic built in default makes reasonable dialogue almost impossible. Christians use arguments like this to strengthen their faith in the resurrection. Unwilling to budge they deductively rationalize these implausibilities to conform to their belief not undermine it. Again, faith determines facts not vice versa.
My theory is the reality of the experience of Jesus as a glorified body and not an physical body is the basis of the resurrection myth. We cannot and should not discount the profound impact this real experience (in the minds of his followers) had on them. The existence of Christianity for two thousand years is proof in the power of faith in a Savior you can only feel and not see. The only difference is these first believers were much closer in time to the source and lived at a time when mystical encounters were not unusual.
One final point deserves mentioning. I believe Mary Magdalene is the reason Christianity began. Were it not for her initial experience, Christianity would have ended before it started. However, due to her questionable mental state, having one time suffered from multiple demon possession, her perception of reality and fantasy may have been indistinguishable. What was perhaps an hallucination brought on by mental illness was interpreted as an actual sighting of Jesus. Her conviction may have prodded and fueled others to seek similar experiences and thus started the resurrection myth.
The ground upon which the resurrection story grew was fertile. Jesus’ ministry was conducted in a world of angels and demons. God was thought to intervene in the natural world through his holy spirit with whom Jesus was anointed. The concept of resurrection was engrained in Judean society having its beginning in the ministries of the classic prophets Elijah and Elisha. Jesus is said to have raised three people from the dead and performed numerous miracles and exorcism. Israelites anticipated a future great resurrection to coincide with the restoration of the land. Add to all of this an empty tomb and missing body which have created the perfect storm in the imagination of a woman predisposed to seeing visions and hearing voices from the unseen spiritual world.
For two thousand years Christians have been vociferously maintained he is alive and well in heaven and in their hearts. What if he isn’t? Perhaps it is time to finally let Jesus Rest In Peace. Easter can still be a wonderful celebration of this ancient superstition, and of course Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies. But we have come too far as a civilization to live in intellectual denial when it comes to ancient myths and fantasies.
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.