After Easter (Post Resurrection)
If Christ Has Not Been Raised....
by Mark Shea
"Jesus came to give us moral guidance and, to prove he meant business, he let
himself be killed and seen after death, so we would listen up and be good." Not
being raised in any particular religion myself, it wasn't until later that I
discovered this view of Jesus' death and Resurrection (which I heard from my
grandmother) had more in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than it did
with the historic faith of Christianity. But this view of Jesus-as-Klaatu,
impressing the yokels with spiritualist stunts to wow us into listening to his
preachments, is but one of many "alternative" views of the Resurrection of
Christ. In this view, it isn't particularly important whether Jesus was raised
bodily, just so long as his disciples knew he was "really alive"--more likely as
a particularly impressive ghost.
To others, it isn't important whether Jesus is alive even as a ghost so long as
he "lives in the hearts of his countrymen". This is more or less the position of
alleged "Christian theologians" like John Dominic Crossan, who cheerfully
relates this happy news in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography:
What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged
from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the
reverential dignity of their burial accounts. But what was there at the
beginning that necessitated such an intensive volume of apologetic insistence?
If the Romans did not observe the Deuteronomic decree, Jesus' body would have
been left on the cross for the wild beasts. And his followers, who had fled,
would know that. If the Romans did observe the decree, the soldiers would have
made certain Jesus was dead and then buried him themselves as part of their job.
In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered
with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled,
would know that too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is
sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.
This, in English, means Jesus' corpse was dog food long ago, but since the idiot
savant apostles were particularly adept at religious psychosis and making
lemonade out of lemons, then we can say the Resurrection is full of "hope" in a
sense intelligible only to Extremely Advanced Theologians like Crossan.
Then again, there are others who solve the problem of the Resurrection by not
letting Jesus die. In this view, somebody else was crucified on Good Friday
(somebody who really deserved it, like Judas Iscariot), while Jesus went off to
a well-earned pension someplace else. Depending on the legend or the Shocking
Book (e.g. Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent) you are reading,
"someplace else" could be anywhere from Japan to France. Frequently, "Jesus
didn't die" scenarios go for the hearts and flowers conclusion favored by
Hollywood, in which the retired Son of Man finally gets the girl like Clark Kent
in Superman II and no longer has to pursue his unrewarding task of Proclaiming
Platitudes. Typically, they pack him off to some vineyard with Mary Magdalene,
there to found a dynasty of Merovingians or something. Sometimes, instead of
escaping crucifixion entirely, some scenarios grant that he was crucified, but
swooned (possibly with the help of some drugged wine) and regained consciousness
later. But the central claim of all such scenarios is that Jesus didn't really
die on the Cross.
Still other theorists, often involved in the New Age Movement, solve the problem
by allowing him to be only a spirit (divine or angelic, depending on the
preference of the author) appearing as man, a sort of Holy Vision. This solves
the problem of his death by making it an illusion: a tidy disposal of a messy
crucifixion which preserves the Happy Ending.
Meanwhile, others have much simpler and cruder explanations: disciples stole the
corpse, lied about it, and founded a cult for their own selfish gain and power.
Slightly kinder than this is the Hysterical Hallucination theory which says the
apostles meant well, but hallucinated a Resurrection. Or, if not them, then
later generations of Christians got hold of the New Testament and added the
Resurrection. Originally, it was just a collection of apostolic memoirs about
the Dead Master and his witty sayings. Many think Paul is behind the whole thing
(see, for instance, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by
Hyam Maccoby as a sample of this sort of thinking). Paul allegedly transformed
this ordinary Jewish rabbi into a Cosmic Christ figure under the influence of
pagan myth. The original apostles, according to this school, would be horrified
at what Paul did to the teaching of the gentle and witty Y'shua.
One of the obvious difficulties with all these theories is that they don't fit
together well. If later generations are to blame for importing resurrection
myths, then earlier ones aren't. If it's all Paul's fault then it's not Peter's
fault. If the Eleven are body snatchers, then they're not well-meaning
hallucinators, and vice versa. Such theories demonstrate what C.S. Lewis once
referred to as the "restless fertility of bewilderment" so much in evidence when
debunkers try to overturn the mountain of solid evidence for the truth of the
Christian claims. This is unsurprising, since these "alternative explanations"
are all much harder to believe than the Christian explanation of the
Resurrection, which is nicely summarized by St. Paul as follows:
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel,
which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it
fast-unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ
died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he
was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he
appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five
hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have
fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all,
as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the
apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.
On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the
grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and
so you believed.
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that
there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the
dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our
preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-14)
This, the earliest creedal summary of the Faith, gives the lie to my first (and
still one of the most common) ignorant notions of the meaning and nature of the
Resurrection. For it shows clearly that the real heart and soul of the New
Testament teaching about Jesus is not that he was primarily a preacher, wonder
worker, reformer, sage or deliverer of Profound Truths and Happy Thoughts, nor
that the Resurrection was a special effect performed to wow us into following
The first fact of the Christian gospel, according to the New Testament, is the
Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Without the Resurrection, you don't have an
"original" gospel of Witty Sayings, Wise Saws and Modern Instances. You have no
gospel whatsoever. This is why one fourth of each of the gospels focuses on a 72
hour period in the life of Jesus of Nazareth: his Passion and Resurrection. It
is why the rest of the New Testament is overwhelmingly focused on the meaning of
that death and Resurrection, and not on his signs or sayings (almost none of
which are preserved outside the gospels.) It is why virtually nobody but the
most ignorant TV host these days holds the once-popular notion that the
Resurrection was tacked on the New Testament by later generations of Christians
after the death of the apostles. The simple fact is that trying to account for
any of the New Testament without placing the Resurrection at the absolute core
of it is like saying that the real truth of Abraham Lincoln consists of
platitudes about peace and justice and that the "Civil War" was just a myth
concocted by later hagiographers which forms no part of the original story. If
the "original gospel" was just a collection of tales about Jesus going around
saying "Niceness is nice" the question that arises is what, exactly, was so
interesting about him? The only answer is found in the actual documents of the
New Testament, which begin to be composed within 20 years of his death, which
reflect a faith in the Resurrection which is about 20 years old at that point,
and which already contain things like the creed above and the insistence that
the gospel is about nothing other than Jesus and the Resurrection (Acts 17:18).
Very well, we can't blame "later generations" for coming up with the
Resurrection story. So, say some, let's blame Paul. The problem with this theory
is that Paul himself (and witnesses who know Paul, such as Luke, as well as
witnesses who appear to be under very little influence by Paul, such as Matthew
and John) seem to be under the impression that the basic core of the story Paul
has to tell is not Paul's invention.
"I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" is rabbinic
jargon which means "I'm handing on to you the Tradition I was taught". Taught by
whom? In Paul's case, taught by the apostles (Galatians 1:18-21) and by the
normal primitive catechesis given in places like the Church at Antioch where
Paul lived for many years before he started any mission at all (Acts 13). Paul
says this sort of thing repeatedly and seems to take for granted, not only that
what he has to say about Jesus is common knowledge to all Christians (not just
the ones he's converted) but that none of the other apostles bopping around the
Mediterranean--and none of the Churches they founded--are going to have any
quarrel with him when he says that Christ is Risen. If Paul alone is coming up
with this unheard-of and cockamamie myth of the Risen Christ while the rest of
the apostles are just wandering hither and thither, sharing Anecdotes about
Their Friend the Martyred Nazarene, you kind of think somebody would notice.
In short, if faith in the Resurrection is as old as Paul, it is as old as the
apostles themselves. He preaches it for the same reason they do: he really
believes he saw the Risen Christ, just as they say they saw the Risen Christ.
Ah, yes. They say. But why should we believe them? What if the Eleven were just
body snatchers, stealing the corpse of Christ in order to portray themselves as
the Martyr's Best Buddies and found a cult with Jesus as putative head but
themselves as the adored Big Cheeses.
The difficulties with this are numerous. First of all, they don't act like any
cult leaders we know. The records they leave behind do not show air-brushed
photos of fearless, shiny, happy, faith-filled dynamos of apostolic courage,
theological acumen, and intellectual agility who were Jesus' Trusty Right Hand
Men. They show us a group of men whose chagrined honesty compelled them to
carefully incorporate into the public record the fact that they were snobbish,
spiteful, cowardly, factional nitwits who were slow on the uptake, ambitious,
blind, selfish and, when the supreme test came, quite willing to bolt and run in
the hour of their Master's terrible trial. Compare this with the adoring
exhalations of the North Korean press on the Manifold Virtues of The Fearless
Leaders, or the flawless perfection of Stalin according to the Stalinist press
of the 30s, or the Nazi hagiography of Hitler. The apostles make sure that their
public preaching, and the public record, includes a faithful recitation of their
many, many sins. Moreover, they continue to preach the Resurrection for decades,
despite separation, persecution, poverty, threats, torture, and martyrdom
(except for John, who had the pleasure of watching his brother James executed
for his testimony.) In short, they speak and act like honest men, not like men
out to make a buck or acquire power.
Indeed, so honest are they that they even make Jesus look rather ungodlike at
first blush. Jesus is recorded displaying weakness, showing fear, confessing
ignorance and asking questions. He is described as unable to do certain things.
He is recorded saying things that sound dangerously like denials of deity, such
as "Why do you call me good? There is none good but God alone" (Mark 10:18) or
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Yet we are to
believe that cunning liars who carefully doctored history to make Jesus appear
to be the Risen Lord also managed to not notice that such details should be the
first to be eliminated from public preaching if you are air-brushing the
No. What comes across with terrific force in the New Testament is a testimony
given by people who tell the truth, even about awkward facts not instantly
advantageous to their claims. They come across as people who genuinely believe
Christ Risen, not as people who lie about a body they know perfectly well was
stolen or eaten by dogs and then cunningly doctor the record. The apostles
behave their life long (right through their tortured deaths) like men utterly
convinced that they have met the Risen Christ. Indeed, so convinced are they
that they include numerous details which, frankly, no liar would ever make up.
So, for instance, no first century Jewish liars would call as their first
witness Mary Magdalene. For the Magdalene was prima facie incredible to a first
century Jewish audience on two counts. First, she was a woman. Second, she was a
woman out of whom seven demons had been driven--a rather shady psychological
profile. (Mark 16:9). The gospels read like accounts by honest people who are
stuck with the facts--including the fact that the first witness was this
inconvenient and awkward woman.
Some will, of course, retort that this proves too much, since indeed we would
not bother with the testimony of Ima Nutt, alleged alien abductee, so why bother
Because Mary is the first, not the last, witness. The records point to hundreds
of witnesses--most still alive at the time 1 Corinthians was written--and give
an account of the Resurrection which is, in the main, basically coherent. An
appearance to the women, to the Twelve at various times in and around Jerusalem,
to various other individuals, to others in Galilee, including a large gathering,
and in various other ways for 40 days, concluding at the Ascension, followed by
an appearance to Paul some years later (not counting various vision phenomena
which are of a different order). Nitpickers are fond of talking about the
discrepancies between the gospel accounts (books written decades apart for
different audiences and for differing theological purposes). But what really
stands out is how similar the tale is in all of them. If the minor discrepancies
that distinguish them really mean they are false, then we must also conclude
that JFK was never assassinated since witnesses have as many discrepancies in
Indeed, it's often the details that are so persuasive. Thus, another fact nobody
would ever make up is the burial place of Christ: the tomb of Joseph of
Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. It's exactly the sort of detail that gives
the gospels the ring of truth. If you're making the story up, you put the body
in the tomb of some devoted disciple with proper pomp and circumstance, not in
the unlikely final resting place of a member of the ruling body which (by the
time the gospels were composed) is the headquarters of the people most bitterly
opposed to your message.
The mention of the tomb leads some people to another favorite theory: namely,
that the disciples went to the wrong tomb and leapt to the conclusion Christ was
risen. One can only wonder what such theorists think people are made of. It
requires preternatural stupidity on the part, not only of the disciples, but of
the Jerusalem authorities to suppose that such a blunder could lead to the
universal conviction among the apostles that Jesus was the Risen and Glorious
Lord of all. Even if all the early Church was too stupid to find its way back to
the final resting place of the Man who was the white hot focus of their
devotion, surely somebody in the Jerusalem elite who opposed the growing sect of
Nazarenes could have said, "Uh, guys? Here's the corpse. You were looking in the
wrong place. Next time ask for directions." Joseph of Arimathea might have been
of some help here. So might the women, who saw where he was laid. And such a
theory becomes doubly silly when the early Church's fascination with relics and
tombs is factored in. Early liturgies tended to be held at gravesites, yet there
is no cultus that develops around the most important grave of all. Why, it's
like the tomb was empty or something.
Which takes us, in our taxonomy of Resurrection alternatives, to the various
Escape from Death/Swoon Theories, the notion that Jesus somehow avoided death,
either by skipping town and leaving a stooge to take the fall for him or by
enduring crucifixion and then escaping the tomb. It's hard to choose which
version of this theory is more preposterous. If there's any fact of history that
is not disputed, even by hard core atheist historians, it is the fact of his
death. If we know nothing else about him, we know that he died by crucifixion
outside the walls of Jerusalem c. 30 AD.
And yet, as some would have it, he didn't. Like a sort of first century Elvis,
he went into sudden and mysterious retirement in sharp contradiction to
everything he had ever said or done and founded a dynasty or studied philosophy
or something in some far off land. The evidence for this? Well, there is none
really. Just hints, supposings, surmises and what ifs. It's rather like the
thinking behind Chariots of the Gods. There's a theory in search of evidence,
not a dram of evidence giving rise to a theory. Meanwhile, the people who were
there give testimony, not that Jesus boarded a bus out of town right after the
Last Supper (a supper at which he specifically prophesied his Passion with a
creepy accuracy that would reduce Peter to tears when it all happened), but that
he went to betrayal, trial and crucifixion. (And again, why would lying cult
founders make up the story of that prophecy and it's very embarrassing
fulfillment?) Indeed, eyewitnesses like John saw Jesus at both his trial and the
crucifixion. So there's not a lot of ways for Jesus to have gotten out of Dodge
and left somebody else holding the bag.
Ah! But John only thought he saw Jesus die. Really, the Nazarene received a
drugged wine, passed out, and awoke in a freezing cold tomb on a chill morning
in April. The perfect setting for a dramatic recovery from scourging,
crucifixion, massive blood loss, shock, and a spear wound to the heart, as nine
out of ten doctors agree. He then stumbled out (after somehow freeing himself
from the bandages sealed to his torn flesh) and, shoving the zillion ton stone
that sealed the tomb out of the way, limped up to the disciples on his bloody
feet, showed them his hands (complete with permanently immovable thumbs due to
irreparable nerve damage), and gasped out a greeting between the stabs of
agonizing pain due to the spear wound. Most people, faced with such a ghastly
spectacle, would call 911. The disciples, naturally, greeted him as the glorious
Conqueror of Death and Lord of the Universe and founded a religion instead.
Happens all the time.
"Okay, fine," says the victim of Restless Fertility of Disbelief Syndrome,
"Jesus died. And the disciples didn't steal the body and lie about it." They
just hallucinated. Together. All 500 hundred of them. For 40 days... No....
Well, prescinding from the fact that there's still that troublesome empty tomb
(with empty graveclothes in it) to deal with, there's also the problem of the
nature of hallucination. Mass hallucination is extremely rare. So rare, in fact,
that it's usually only invoked to explain away things like, oh, the
Resurrection. The rest of the time, when 500 people say they saw somebody and
spoke with him, we believe them, particularly when they keep suffering martyrdom
for saying it and have nothing to gain by saying it. But in addition, we have
other problems to deal with when it comes to the Mass Hallucination Theory.
First and foremost is the curious fact that hallucinations like this are
supposed to be the fruition of intense wish-fulfillment fantasies. The witnesses
supposedly wanted Jesus to be alive so bad that they freaked out and thought
they saw him. However, on at least three occasions the one they saw was not
recognized. What sort of hallucination shows up in response to our deepest wish
and then isn't recognized?
More to the point, what hallucination can be touched and eats fish?
Which leaves us pretty much with the Last Gasp "Jesus was a Divine Illusion"
school of gnostic or New Age thinking. For, if the Risen Christ was "really" a
purely spiritual illusion sent by the divine to teach us Higher Truths about the
unimportance of the body and the need to transcend our humanity, then what could
be more certain to obscure this lesson than a body which can be touched, which
eats fish and breathes warm breath? The apostles, at any rate, don't seem to
have picked up on these Higher Truths at all. They teach instead that the Risen
Christ is raised bodily and is not only fully God but fully human, albeit
Raised bodily. Glorified. Both fully God and fully Man. When the alternatives
have all spent themselves in fruitless clamor for our attention, it's the old
Christian story that still persuades because it just happens to be the truth.
It's the story of the Conqueror of death who, as Man, has borne the sting of
death and, as God, has raised our dead human nature out of the grave so that we
too may live in his glorious life on the Last Day as he already lives it. You
can read all about it--without crackpot alternative explanations--in the New
Testament. A most convincing book, especially when so many skeptics drive you to
murmur "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian!"
The Resurrection is the factual cornerstone of Christian faith. Without it, you
do not get a gospel purified of superstition. You get a litter of low-rent
"real" conclusions of the story of Christ that are vastly harder to buy than the
Christian explanation. At the end of the day, the fact remains that, "If Christ
has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain"
and "we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:14; 19). But all
that rides on the fantasy of "if". In reality, as Paul also clearly knew (for he
had seen the Risen Christ and went to his grave in joyful confidence of this
fact), things were far otherwise, thanks be to God. For "in fact Christ has been
raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1
Copyright 2003 - Mark P. Shea
Week Supplement in Malankara World
Sermons for Passion
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