Why Did the Disciples Doubt When Jesus First Appeared to Them?

Three days after He was crucified, Jesus’ disciples claimed that they found the tomb He was buried in empty.  Last week, I showed how their initial reaction to discovering the empty tomb, doubt, reveals that the story is very credible.  To their utter humiliation—down through the ages—their initial reaction wasn’t a heroic faith that Jesus had conquered death, but instead, the clueless presumption that someone else must have moved His body.  This, however, wasn’t the most humiliating thing they did.

Not only do they doubt Jesus is risen from the dead when confronted with His empty tomb, incredibly, they also doubt He’s risen when He appears right in front of them.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ initial appearance to His closest disciples depict them responding with incredulity.  They don’t doubt they are having a real vision of Jesus.  What they doubt is that it’s really Him, risen from the dead.   

As with the empty tomb, their embarrassing reaction points to these accounts being solidly historical.  Moreover, this element of doubt and confusion was hugely counterproductive to the Church’s mission—if Jesus’ own disciples weren’t sure what they experienced, how is anyone else supposed to be?  No Gospel writer would record the story this way unless this is, essentially, what happened: the disciples experienced visions of Jesus that created doubt and confusion. 

Whatever people back then made of them, visions of the recently deceased were well-known.  Though infrequent, they would be familiar enough to the disciples.  At the very least, the disciples would have known they were possible, and if they thought they saw Jesus appearing this way it wouldn’t have thrown them off, creating such doubt and confusion.  Instead, a vision of Jesus shortly after His death might very well have frightened them, but most likely would have brought them great comfort.

Either way, no matter how vivid or real they seemed, visions of the deceased were understood to be fleeting mental projections, not real events.  No one thought the person had returned permanently, with a real body.  No one thought the person had risen from the dead.  For First-Century Jews, after all, resurrection (of the body) wasn’t possible until the Age to Come, when everyone would be raised at once.

So, why did the disciples doubt when they thought Jesus first appeared to them?  Why were they so perplexed and confused?  If all they saw was Jesus appearing as in a vision, they wouldn’t be.  A mere vision wouldn’t have thrown them off so badly.

There had to be something about the nature of this vision that was throwing them off, that they would find completely unbelievable, as unbelievable as an individual being resurrected bodily before the End Time.  In fact, when it came to visions of the recently deceased, resurrection was the one thing First-Century Jews thought to be completely impossible.  That means the one thing that would most likely throw the disciples off this way is an appearance that was so physical, they couldn’t believe their eyes!

The disciples’ doubt strongly suggests that Jesus was appearing in a way they could hardly expect or believe; that He was appearing with a real, tangible body; that He was appearing objectively, “out there” in the real world.

The disciples’ doubt strongly suggests that what they saw was no mere vision, but Jesus truly resurrected from the dead.

Do you have any comments or questions you’d like me to address?  Go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave them there.  I’d love to hear from you!  Also, I truly appreciate all the support you’ve been giving me.  If you haven’t yet, please “Like” our Facebook page and subscribe to our YouTube channel.  Thank you!

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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