The irrational basis of Christian faith: The Resurrection Experience (Part3of3)

Does seeing ghosts make them real?

The power of experience

Experience is a powerful force and can be used to validate science. For instance, science can tell us why a stove is hot and we can believe it intellectually; however, when we touch the stove, experience corroborates why we know to be true. Religious experience is different. It has no empirical basis.

Religious experience begins with the unknowable and without scientific evidence to contradict it, remains firmly fixed. In other words, for some not being able to disprove God, proves God. 

Those who are willing to make this concession must accept the existence of the countless gods who have been part of humankind since the dawn of time. 

Christians are quick to add their sacred scripture as independent proof of God’s existence as spelled out in the Bible (All other gods are non existent). As soon as the Bible is introduced into the discussion, the debate moves from the unknowable to the examinable. There is plenty of evidence to evaluate.

In the previous two articles we looked at how any Christian faith which presupposes the miraculous, specifically, the resurrection, is rationally baseless. Ultimately every Christian who adheres to a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead must confront their own irrationalism. They have no choice.

The biblical accounts are fraught with contradictions, incongruences and implausibilities making all of the unreliable and incredible sources of truth. Defaulting to one’s own personal encounter with God is insufficient proof of anything but the experience itself since most faith groups have religious writings which generate similar spiritual awareness.

In this article I would like to offer the most plausibly rational explanation for what transpired Easter morning when Mary and the other women went to embalm Jesus for permanent burial.

When I was in Bible college students had to take a course called, “Apologetics” which taught one how to defend one’s faith from criticism. I have looked back at some of the main arguments conservative Christians use to “prove” the validity of their faith to nonbelievers. All rely heavily on sophistry which is reasoning that sounds good but it actually specious. Here is one classic example.

The resurrection had to have been real because the disciples would not have died to defend a lie.

I confess this made a lot of sense to me the first time I heard it in my Apologetics course but it is flawed reasoning. First, this presumes the same disciples who stole the body were his inner circle. Jesus had hundreds of followers any of whom may have taken his body for private burial. His core disciples would have been unaware of this act. Furthermore, those who did take Jesus’ body would keep it a secret.

I think Jesus’ most trusted and intimate followers were also the most likely to be willing to die for him. They were also the best candidates for having a vision of him. Who else would Jesus appear to if not them? They had an emotional bond which made them want to believe he was resurrected. Only these select few could hope to be the ones their master personally visited which would make them highly receptive to a mystical encounter. In other words, they alone would be the ones most likely to die for Jesus because they were the only ones privileged to have seen him.

Actual or spiritual encounter?

Does it make a difference whether the disciples had a vision of Jesus or an actual encounter? No, in fact the former would be preferred.

When examining the resurrection story, the only possibility is some of his closest disciples truly believed they were having a mystical encounter with the risen Jesus. Their experience was real even though its content was not. Judging from the gospel accounts, only Mary could claim to have seen a physical Jesus, while the disciples saw the glorified Jesus. In their minds, seeing Jesus in his spiritual body was more affirming than if they saw him in his physical body because it proved he was special. 

In the context of these first century minds, a heavenly vision transcended a mere physical sighting. Anybody could be brought back to life (Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son) but receiving a glorified body was unique.

Let’s revisit Mary. Her initial encounter appears to have been of the recently resurrected Jesus. The ascension concept had not been introduced yet because his followers thought he had been physically resurrected. The ascension tradition was necessitated by no further physical sightings and to explain his non corporeal form. This is pivotal because it cements her testimony as an eyewitness upon which all other sightings rest. But is she a reliable source?

We do not know a lot about Mary other than she was from a town called Magdala and Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. The second point is crucial because it gives us a window into her psychological state of mind. Unless you believe in demon possession, Mary was mentally unstable and prone to paranormal experiences. She was the ideal candidate for seeing what she thought was a physical Jesus.

Put yourself in her sandals. She has deep affection for her beloved master. She is confronted with an empty tomb and missing body. These two factors coupled with her mental state easily explain her perceived encounter with Jesus. Her conviction in this matter would carry great weight. Why wouldn’t it since she was among his closest followers? Her experience was the catalyst for the resurrection myth. However without the support of Jesus male disciples, the resurrection story would have sputtered and died.

I would contend the disciples first learned of the empty tomb and missing body on Easter morning before returning to Galilee. Mary at this stage had only had an angelic encounter telling her of Jesus’ physical resurrection. A couple of disciples hurried to the tomb and discovered it empty but did not see Jesus. They concluded Mary’s experience was “nonsense.” They returned home to resume their previous occupation as fisherman planning to return fifty days later for Pentecost.

Believing is seeing

During this time, Mary had at least one other encounter but this time with Jesus himself. When the disciples returned they were confronted with this new information and were forced to make a decision. They gathered for prayer to consider the possibility Jesus had in fact been raised. They may have revisited the tomb hoping to see Jesus but did not. While praying several of them began to have visions while others remained reticent (doubting). It is clear from the gospels Jesus was now in a spiritual body which could pass through locked doors and appeared as “a spirit.” This would give rise to the ascension theory to explain his physical absence from sightings and how he received his new body.  

The gospels unanimously describe Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as a collective experience with doubt being a key factor.

These narratives unknowingly support the idea they had no previous knowledge of the resurrection. They behaved exactly as one would expect they would if learning about the resurrection for the first time.

Luke records the disciples ignoring the women’s testimony. Even if we accepted they somehow “forgot” about the resurrection despite numerous reminders, for all of them to reject a verbal declaration by eyewitnesses is inconceivable. And Peter and John go to the tomb and find it empty yet still fail to recall all Jesus said, did and taught about his resurrection defies comprehension.

Matthew’s Olivet discourse contains a little phrase which seems entirely out of place. His disciples ask him specifically for “signs” that will signal his coming suggesting they are keenly aware of his return and therefore his resurrection. This section is full of references to his return which further brings into question its authenticity. It does however make perfect sense is a post-resurrection Christian addition intended to revive a moribund faith which had grown disillusioned with Jesus’ repeated failures to return.

27”And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”(Luke 24:27)

44”He 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…”(Luke 24:44-46)

Luke twice records Jesus making reference to the Hebrew Scriptures to validate his death and resurrection. I can state with absolute certitude, there is no text anywhere in the Hebrew Bible which mentions a future Messiah dying and rising from the dead. Isaiah 53 might be the closest but contextually it refers to a death already taken place (ca. 6th century BC). A thorough analysis of the entire passage reveals many details inconsistent with Jesus death. At best it could be used as a vague illustration but even then it strains at the original meaning which depicts a grossly disfigured man whose unjust execution was seen as redeeming those in Babylonian captivity. 

[In an earlier post, I have discussed in detail the contents of Isaiah 53. It is a eulogy offered by a Yahwist prophet who was complicit in the execution of this innocent man, aka, “The Suffering Servant.” Any disease was considered a curse by God and leprosy may have been the reason for this man’s death. The fact it occurred simultaneous to Cyrus’ edict releasing all captives was seen as proof of substitutionary atonement.]

One should remember, Jesus was not innocent. He was a potential insurrectionist who refused to rescind his claim as, “King of the Judeans” which was in direct violation of Roman law. The threat of a rebellion is as much a crime as starting one. Jesus’ new role as political messiah carried dire consequences in the eyes of Roman authority. If allowed to return to the mass of pilgrims, his gaining popularity could foment a full scale revolt. Jesus sealed his own fate when he accepted his messiahship.

We will close with a few observations from the John’s gospel. He records Mary visiting the tomb without angelic interaction and therefore knowledge of the resurrection. This would seem to place it before Matthew which is chronologically implausible. Trying to harmonize the four accounts while preserving plausibility and sensibility is futile. However, those predisposed to believe anything will believe anything no matter how outlandish.

Both John and Luke record the presence of Jesus’ burial clothes. Many Christians have seen this as evidence of the resurrection because they were neatly folded. I think this provides more evidence his body was stolen by some unknown disciples who carefully removed and folded these garments before anointing the body and wrapping it in clean cloth. It was an act of honor and respect.

John records the lengthiest meeting between Jesus and Mary which must be the first but this clashes with Matthew. Along with Matthew’s record, Mary is clearly the first to encounter the risen Jesus which somehow Paul fails to mention (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Perhaps we see here a hint of the misogyny found within his writings. The power of the Mary tradition would be impossible to ignore though Luke, Paul’s companion, also makes no mention of Mary’s sighting. It is however included in Mark’s shorter ending (Mk. 16:9).

Finally, the infamous story of, “Doubting Thomas” is found at the end of John’s work. While Thomas has been castigated for centuries for his doubting nature, he was likely the only sensible one of the bunch. His testimony also confirms he had no previous knowledge of a resurrection and refused to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples of a mystical Christ. Whether he ever believed is doubtful regardless of John’s text.

Thomas’ unbelief is used as a literary tool by the writer to challenge his readers to faith. He exhorts them not to be like Thomas and demand physical proof which they could never have. Instead they are to be like him who after seeing the empty tomb “saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8).

“Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”(John 20:29) 

Interestingly, these words are intended to have been spoken by Jesus a week after his resurrection (Jn. 20:26) suggesting it is better to not see Jesus though he continued to appear for another thirty-three days (Acts 1:3) and was seen by more than five hundred of brothers and sister “at the same time” (1 For. 15:6). It was also a pre-requisite for an Apostle to have seen him so Thomas’ request was justified.

Challenging the resurrection

Challenging the resurrection in not an intellectual exercise for Christians, it is an emotional one. These conclusions will create a visceral reaction of anger because that is where faith resides — in the heart. Many Christians will simple resort to not caring what reason says preferring to leave the matter in God’s hands. Very few will confront their worst fears with honesty and integrity at the risk of losing their eternal hope. All this should set off alarm bells in the minds of Christians they have built their house on the sinking sand of irrationalism.

Many will discount or discredit these findings or disparage the author rather than invest the time and energy (and perhaps money to acquire the necessary skills) to make an informed objective decision. They will celebrate their refusal to bow to the demands of rationalism as tainted by sin and wear their indifference as a badge of honor. They will herald themselves as guardians of God’s precious truth. 

It is far easier to continue believing in ignorance than to make the laborious journey to achieve intellectual freedom. For evangelicals the choice is simple. 

Doubt is the first step toward intellectual freedom

Doubt is the only key that unlocks the door of faith and only the possessor of the faith holds it. 

I started my quest to find the truth by doubting what I had been taught in evangelical institutions in an effort to rebuild my faith relying on the knowledge and skills I had obtained. I did not begin thinking I would abandon Jesus and reject Christianity. I was only hoping to reconstruct by faith by first dismantling it theological brick by brick.

I approached the Bible without a preconceived bias believing as long as I held onto Jesus, I would emerge victorious in my pursuit. In doing so, I inadvertently let down my faith guard so I could achieve pure objectivity. It was like reading the Bible for the first time, seriously! It seemed fresh.

I have mentioned many times my primary focus was to eliminate pre-tribulation, premillennial dispensationalism, and everything associated with it. It had become clear to me in seminary this was a diabolical and noxious doctrine that had no place in Christianity. I had also undertaken a detailed study of the role of baptism in the salvation experience and concluded evangelicalism demotion of it to an ordinance from a sacrament was unfounded.

The deeper I dug, the more I discovered was wrong with my evangelical faith. I could no longer confine my objective scrutiny to a few teachings and began to expand my investigation. The doctrine of the Trinity had puzzled me from the start as I wondered how the Israelites had “missed” the Holy Spirit in their studies. I also knew the early Christians had no such concept and looked for its origins. Christianity’s departure from strictly monotheistic parentage played a large role in later Gentiles proposing a triple Godhead.

Inerrancy had been a stumbling block for me almost from day one. I attended a Bible school overseas before I was a year old as a Christian to gain some biblical foundation. I spent most of my free time in the school library in self study. My major project was to write out by hand my own harmony of the gospels to resolve some questions I had.

I had been told inerrancy meant every word of the Bible was divinely inspired and absolutely factual. Of course I believed it. However, reading through the gospels revealed many discrepancies within identical accounts of the same event. How could both be right if they were different? Words spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism or at his Transfiguration were not the same. While only a small detail, it meant one was “wrong.” It would be fifteen years before I revisited this issue but at a much deeper level. 

When it comes to comparative analysis of the gospels there are factual discrepancies but there is also plausibility issues. The nativity stories and the resurrection records abound with matters of “believability.” The most glaring one in our study is how ever disciple of Jesus missed the resurrection. Not one remembered his repeated promise to rise again after three days and keep vigil outside his tomb. While this detail does not fall into the factual category, it most certainly tests the limits of plausibility. It along with the many factual (if we assume inerrancy) contradictions leads the reasonable mind to reject the resurrection. 

The infallibility of experience

I have stated repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of Christians (99.9%?) do not know enough or have the skills to properly and thoroughly investigate inerrancy to make an informed decision. It takes years to work through all the historical, chronological, textual, archeological and theological data which can be found on almost every page of the Bible. One must resolve thousands of pieces of information before stating its validity unequivocally. It is a very high bar. 

Inerrancy is easy to believe but incredibly hard to substantiate. Instead, inerrantists rely on their God-experience via the Holy Scriptures as sufficient proof of their divine inspiration. It is therefore their experience which is infallible which is then transferred to the Bible.

Believing the Bible to be inerrant or infallible or divinely inspired in any way is a matter of faith not intellect. There are no inerrantists who are also nonbelievers. Inerrancy is either inherited or presumed before one really knows whether it is valid (It isn’t). Most Christians are taught inerrancy in some form as uninformed children by misinformed adults who were once uninformed themselves, and so on. 

I make this point to illustrate how difficult it is to make someone un-believe what they have believed most of their lives and from which they have derived benefit. Nobody wants admit to making this mistake. Un-experiencing God is almost impossible. I say, “almost” as one who has un-experienced God.

I consider my departure from Christianity rare and unique because I had no intention of leaving, but rather solidifying my faith. What began as an earnest quest for a deeper faith ended in a complete jettisoning of it.

One of the positives of knowing Christian belief is a fantasy is the realization that all the progress and growth you thought came from God was actually of your own doing. I had lived a Christian existence thinking I was a worthless sinner whose only good came from God’s spirit controlling my life. Becoming a Christian unlocked my potential and gave me the confidence I lacked within myself. Christianity freed me by imprisoning me.

Belief in a higher power is essential for some people to transform their lives. Many get to a place where they feel helpless and powerless to gain victory over drugs, alcohol, pornography, rage, sex or any other addiction. In this regard, religion can place a crucial role in helping people make change. So does this end justify the means?

I would contend it does not. The benefits religion provides, e.i., comfort, peace, strength, guidance, significance and hope do not outweigh the abuses and atrocities it causes. Most of the benefits could be replaced with humanistic efforts and those that cannot must find alternative methods. Perhaps the money saved funding churches or clergy could be better spent on mental health or substance abuse programs. 

Religion is becoming far too influential in society and politics to be allowed free reign. Two thousand years of history attest to its potential dangers and each day seems to bring more news of its abuse by those in leadership positions. But the threat can also be felt at the ballot box where groups like evangelical Christians vote their ideology which is often in contradistinction to political and social progressivism.

Apocalypticism is a highly dangerous concept deeply embedded within the American evangelical psyche. Proponents see the world in a vastly different way than the rest of society. Pessimism characterizes this belief which sees an expiration date on the world as it marches towards a cataclysmic culmination. Evangelicals who espouse this enjoy a false sense of security knowing they will be Raptured to heaven before things get too bad. In an effort to align themselves with God’s purposes, the view the Middle East as a place where strife and war are to be encouraged. Peace has no place in God’s divine plan until after Jesus returns.

A global pandemic, greenhouse gases, polar ice melts, nuclear war will not spell the end of the world. Only God can destroy his creation. Evangelicals goal is not to be a counter purposes to God which means backing a man like Donald Trump who is viewed as God’s unwitting pawn in bringing about the end of the world.

Embracing an irrational faith can have catastrophic consequences in every sphere of society, environmentally, socially and politically. These articles were intended to show just how baseless are the beliefs of Christians especially groups like evangelicals. We must stop indulging fantastical thinking. This begins with stripping the Bible of its aura of mystique by exposing its many flaws for all to see. 

As a society we should be ashamed at allowing a book of ancient superstitions to enjoy such a preeminent place of influence in people’s lives and society at large.

Published by ronarends

I was born in London, Ontario, Canada. I attended Capernwray Bible School (England and Austria), Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Il.), the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario), London Baptist Seminary (London, Ontario) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Tx.). I have had several temporary jobs over the years but my focus has alway been on an investigative study of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity particularly evangelicalism. Currently editing a massive literary undertaking deconstructing Christianity and Jesus.

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