A Christian reconsiders the Resurrection of Christ

Post from Kimbo:


The Christian faith, of its own admission, stands or falls on the bodily resurrection of Christ. As per the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians chapter 15, if Christ did not rise again the Christian faith is “useless”, “false witness”, “futile” and “pitiable”. You maybe have a whole host of doubts, objections and flat-out dismissals concerning the resurrection of Christ. Fair enough, but as a Christian I’ll explain what I find the number one challenge to believing the fantastical claim that a man rose from the dead.

To put my challenge in its necessary context, I’ll first outline what I think is fairly certain about the wider Jesus story. The interests of brevity do not permit a detailed explanation why, but I think by the reasonable standards of historical inquiry and inference from the written record of the New Testament Gospels, and the discernible oral traditions from which much of them were derived, the following is likely factual:

  1. There was a Jewish man named Jesus of Nazareth who lived in 1st Century Palestine.
  2. He had an itinerant ministry in Galilee and Judea, which attracted a following, with a core group at the centre.
  3. Central to the message of that ministry was the Jewish apocalyptic expectation of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom on earth, with Jesus at the centre in some way.
  4. Jesus’ ministry culminated in a dispute with the Jewish authorities who administered the temple in Jerusalem, and who concluded Jesus was, among other dangerous activities, a blasphemer.
  5. As a result, Jesus was put to death by means of crucifixion at the hands of the occupying Romans, whose involvement in his demise was aroused by the additional charge of sedition.
  6. At the time of Jesus arrest and detainment before death, one of Jesus’ followers, Cephas/Simon Peter publicly denied any association with him.
  7. Another of Jesus’ followers, Judas Iscariot, was alleged to have played a part in that arrest.
  8. After Jesus’ death some women attached to his group claimed his body was no longer where it was left after had died.
  9. From that beginning the belief quickly arose among the group that Jesus had risen from the dead, then appeared to them, before ascending to heaven. Also, he was Israel’s long-hoped for Messiah who would one day return to usher in the kingdom of God.
  10. A few years later, Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Jew and former persecutor of the Jesus-movement claimed Jesus had appeared to him in a vison. As a result, Saul became a believer and eventual leader within the Jesus-movement, and he played a key role in expanding the movement beyond Jews to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.

You’ll notice I said that the group believed Jesus rose again, not that he necessarily did. For us, who are expected according to Scripture to believe their account, the primary weakness in taking that additional step lies in the nature of that group. First, with the death of their leader they would have been struck with a combination of fear, confusion and grief.

Everyone remember the Kubler Ross grief cycle? First comes denial, then comes anger, then comes bargaining. Whatever else the early church may have been, it was indisputably a first Century Jewish apocalyptic sect. History is full of examples of similar sects whose hope in the end of the age was dashed, and due to a combination of denial and bargaining, they rationalised and recalibrated to keep the hope and movement alive. What became the Seventh Day Adventists are one example, and what became the Jehovah’s Witnesses are another. Both expected the return of Jesus in 1844-45 and 1914 respectively, and when he failed to show up both resorted to “invisible heavenly” actions by Jesus to explain the failed prophecy.

Indeed, from the perspective of orthodox Judaism that’s what Christianity looks like – a sect that put its eggs in the basket of a false Messiahship-claim. Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus? Among other reasons for many Jews the idea of a dead Messiah is an oxymoron. Messiahs don’t die, much less on a cross which is a sign of God’s curse according to Mosaic law. Instead the Messiah ends death by ushering in the resurrection at the end of the age. So, from the Jewish perspective, the purported resurrection of Jesus looks like the denial-and-bargaining process of an apocalyptic sect, trying to rationalise away the fact that they got it wrong…and then they suckered a gullible bunch of Gentiles, too ignorant to know what genuine Judaism was.

The second feature of the original Jesus-was-resurrected group was that they were precisely that – a group. We are, of our very nature, social beings. There is a reason that the New Testament counsels believers to fellowship together, teaching, encouraging, strengthening and rebuking one another as required. That’s how groups, all groups operate to some extent. They keep one another in line so they can fulfil their function or purpose. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the pejorative “group-think” of George Orwell. However, the reality is that to fit in with the expectations and culture of the group and maintain tolerable social comfort levels, people will, in the right circumstances, tow the party line. Like, say, when some of the women come telling the rest of the group that Jesus’ dead body was not where it was left. And then another mentions that a bystander confirmed to them that Jesus wasn’t there. And then another says…Jesus appeared to her. And then someone thinks, what would it mean if Jesus did rise again, how would that fit with the possibility he was the Messiah, and then…

The third feature of the religious group that seems to have genuinely believed in the resurrection story in contradiction to normal expectations is, yet again, they were precisely that – a religious group. I’ve heard Christian apologists make the blanket claim that there is no way that the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John can be psychotic episodes because psychosis is a personal, not a group phenomenon. Ok, but even if that is so, what about phenomena that does affect groups that doesn’t fit the diagnosis of psychosis but involves the distortion of ordinarily-accepted reality?

Leaving aside John Marco Allegro’s now generally discredited magic mushrooms theory, maybe there was some ancient Palestinian version of LSD that lead them off on a group resurrection-trip. But more likely is that if you look for group-induced distortions of reality that mirror some of the elements of psychosis, they aren’t too hard to find. Especially among the religious. I mean, come on! How many suicide bombers getting in early for their 72 virgins, or Jonestown suicide pacts do you need to confirm the fact that, in the right circumstances, especially in a group setting religious people will believe and do anything! I’ve seen it, indeed to my embarrassment I’ve at one time done it – religious people full of zeal who claim to see and drive out demons, lengthen legs and straighten backs. Or worship, or clap or howl at the Pavlovian prompting of a shyster using all the usual party tricks of clairvoyant cold readings, group hysteria and carefully crafted-group pressure.

So, is that what happened with the original Jesus-group? Or is it at least a reasonable possibility. I’d say, yes. From the perspective of New Testament critical scholarship, it solves some problems, like how the thus-far observed laws of nature were contradicted in Jesus’ alleged resurrection. However, it would also raise some others. Including and especially how the likely very primitive confessional formula that Paul recited in I Corinthians 15: 3-8a came to be:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born…

Not just one, or a small group, but over five hundred? The quick-and-easy “the Bible is just made up and was written years after the events it records” is too simplistic in the case of I Corinthians 15, but again space prohibits explaining why here. Suffice to say, it seems that irrespective of whether Jesus rose again or not, the belief he was seen by over five hundred of his followers is genuine. So how did that work? Maybe there could have been someone who looked like Jesus, standing at a distance from the crowd (The Life of Brian, “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, anyone?). Add in denial-bargaining, group-think, religious hysteria and rationalising that the movement has to carry on, and maybe that’s the answer. Put it this way – contrary to the assurances of Christian apologists, I don’t think it can be easily dismissed.

So yeah, it’s a real possibility the resurrection of Jesus was genuinely-believed but mistaken by his original followers. But is it the most likely? Well, from the perspective of modern scepticism, which via the scientific method has rid the world of small pox, sent human beings to the moon and made an assortment of discoveries that would amaze the Iron Age inhabitants of 1st Century Palestine, it is indeed probably the best explanation. So am I rationalising and seeking to work back from my desired conclusions to a method that will furnish them if I note that scepticism is not the only valid starting point? Or that I’m not yet ready to give up my faith?