Over the last century or so, skeptical scholars have realized the futility of trying to deny the resurrection with naturalistic arguments—like Jesus never really died but was just in a coma and revived in the cool of the tomb.  Trying to refute the empty tomb and appearances on the basis of the details contained in the Gospel accounts has hardly convinced anyone.  So instead, they’ve questioned the accounts themselves, claiming that they are later legends that don’t reflect what really happened. 

This is how the argument is usually made: There was no empty tomb—either the disciples went to the wrong tomb, Jesus’ body was  moved or stolen, or it was never placed in its own tomb in the first place (it was left on the cross to be devoured by wild animals or buried in a common grave where it could no longer be identified). 

Subsequently, one or more of the disciples had some kind of visionary experience (hallucinations, a group ecstatic experience, etc.) that convinced them Jesus was still alive.  Much later, a generation or two after these original disciples had died, when the details surrounding the tomb and appearances were forgotten and could no longer be verified, the resurrection stories were written. 

Reza Aslan’s best-selling Zealot explains why this was done: “The resurrection stories in the gospels were created to…put flesh and bones on an already accepted creed; to create narrative out of an established belief; and, most of all, to counter the charges of critics who denied the claim, who argued that Jesus’ followers saw nothing more than a ghost or spirit, who thought it was the disciples themselves who stole Jesus’s body to make it appear as though he rose again.” (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, New York, NY: Random House, 2014, p. 176.)

In other words, the “legend” of the resurrection put “flesh and bones” on the church’s belief in Jesus as the risen Lord.  It was devised to defend the church’s faith and convince potential converts of its truth.

The appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Luke 24:36-43 is a good example of how this works.  When Jesus first appears, they think he is a ghost.  He challenges them to touch him to see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones.  He then proceeds to eat a piece of fish in their presence, consuming food in a way no spirit could, thus proving that he is indeed risen from the dead.

In one way or another, the strongest scholarly arguments against the resurrection depend on this “legend theory.”

As many have pointed out however, there is a fatal flaw in this argument. 

As those second and third Christian generations were furiously trying to spread the Gospel throughout the Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) world, they would have felt enormous pressure not to put “flesh and bones” on this story, but rather, to take them off.

Gentiles found the idea of bodily resurrection—that we might have flesh and bones after death—absurd and repugnant.  Flesh rots and decays after death.  Moreover, it places all kinds of limitations on you, from aches and pains to the boundaries of the physical, space-time realm.  How can it be immortal?  Gentiles hoped for a “disembodied immortality”, where the soul is liberated from the body at death; where you no longer get sick or feel pain; where you can fly like Superman or have Scotty “beam you up” and transcend all physical boundaries.

People throughout the Roman Empire believed there was a radical division between the body and the spirit, and saw the spirit as superior, as the “real” person who transcends death; who “sheds” the temporal body upon entering immortality.  In short, the spirit is good; the flesh, bad.

We’ve inherited this view.  Who doesn’t want to shed all the limitations, ailments, and agonies of physical existence?  Who’s really happy with their body? (Even some of the most beautiful models, we are told, aren’t happy with the way they look.)  Who wouldn’t want to be free of bodily existence? 

Painful accidents.  Life-long disabilities.  Devastating Diseases.  Chronic illnesses.  Negative “body-image” issues.  Our bodies are often more a source of angst than joy.  A source of helplessness and hopelessness than life and vitality.

Years ago, I visited a friend who was dying from cancer in the hospital.  It was shocking to see what this awful disease had done to his body.  Like someone suffering from starvation, you could see all his bones.  He was so weak and worn out, he could only speak a few words at a time before needing a break.  The worst thing for him was having people see him this way—he only allowed me to see him because he knew I was a pastor and he wanted to talk.  He hated the look of pity.  Embarrassed, exhausted, and emaciated, he couldn’t escape the ravages his body imposed.  He longed for the freedom death would bring.

This is how we often feel: trapped in our own bodies.  We long for liberation from this prison.

The world the early church was trying to reach was no different. 

This is why it’s ridiculous to suggest that features which play up Jesus’ physicality (e.g., leaving an empty tomb behind, capable of being touched, eating food, etc.) were invented to defend the faith and win converts. 

A risen Jesus who is tangible and who eats a piece of fish would have been utterly repulsive to a Gentile world.  Yes, it would argue for the reality of his appearance, that he wasn’t a ghost.  But, it would be far more counterproductive—no Gentile would be inclined to think this view of immortality could be true; no Gentile would want this view of immortality to be true.

In fact, putting “flesh and bones” on a purely visionary phenomenon (like a hallucination) has it completely backwards. 

If anything, the tendency would have been to downplay these features, not place them front and center; to de-emphasize the physical nature of Jesus’ appearances; to make it more attractive by spiritualizing the whole thing.

If anything, the overpowering inclination would be to spiritualize these stories as much as possible.  There would be no problem with Jesus appearing as a ghost, as a spirit.  That would be appealing, persuasive, compelling.  

That would be a risen Jesus they could believe in!

If there’s one thing we can be certain of it is that the Gospel writers would never add physical elements to an experience that was purely spiritual in the first place.  If they were free to write the stories any way they wished, there would be no trace of the physical in them, no appearance of a Jesus who can be touched and consume food. 

Because the later Gospel writers would feel enormous pressure to eliminate all traces of the physical, these elements must be early and intractable.  Jesus’ physicality had to be so entrenched in the original tradition that it couldn’t be eliminated.  In other words, the gospel writers and/or their sources weren’t freely composing stories from scratch.  They were passing on and recording early historical events that really happened. 

The Resurrection stories can’t be dismissed as later legends.

There’s much more evidence to support this conclusion.  In the past twenty years or so, there have been groundbreaking studies on the nature and reliability of eyewitness testimony, oral traditions, and ancient biography.  But this will have to wait for future blogs.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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