Beyond Born Again

Section II-- The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable?

Chapter 6: Guarding An Empty Tomb

In Chapter 5, I dealt with the most common arguments for the reliability of the gospels. Now I want to discuss a special case, the arguments advanced for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the outset of his widely circulated booklet, The Evidence for the Resurrection, J. N. D. Anderson gives attention to the view that the resurrection narrative are legends. Anderson rules that "this is... impossible.... [because] the records were too early for legendary growth." [1] We have already seen the fatal difficulties that beset this contention. There is no point in repeating it all here, except to remind ourselves that the time interval between Jesus and the gospels is certainly sufficient to allow for the growth of legends. But since the historicity argument is absolutely crucial to Evangelical apologetics for the resurrection, we will devote a little space to the particulars of the resurrection narratives.

What suggests to non-Evangelical scholars that the resurrection narratives contain legendary elements? First there is a variety of apparent contradictions in the stories which in any ancient narrative would have to arouse the historian's suspicion. Perhaps the most detailed investigations of these are still to be found in Reimarus' Fragments and Strauss' The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. They include the well-known discrepancies of which and how many women visited the tomb, and at what hour. Was it Mary Magdalene alone, or was she with others? Did she/they see the angel(s?) before or after she(they) called Peter and the others? Where was Jesus buried, in a tomb that conveniently happened to be nearby, or in Joseph's tomb? Did the risen Jesus tell his disciples to go to Galilee, or to stay in Jerusalem? The most embarrassing divergence between the narratives revolves around the spectacular scene in Matthew. In this version, the women are treated to the sight of a luminous angel flying down, causing an earthquake, and heaving the stone away from the empty tomb, and all this in full view of posted guards! The problem is that the other evangelists somehow seem to have forgotten to mention the guards and the whole sequence of events! Certainly if all this had really taken place, the women could not help but have included it in every telling of their story, and no gospel writer could have failed to use these facts had he known them. In a gospel otherwise known for midrashic expansion (e.g., the addition of Peter walking on the water), it would not seem improbable that we have an unhistorical addition here.

The reader has probably seen some attempts to harmonize some of the discrepancies between the gospel accounts. The precarious and contrived nature of the result should make anyone hesistant to base much on it. But let us suppose these texts could all be harmonized. The value of the accounts as evidence for the resurrection would still be greatly lessened. The very admission of the need to harmonize is an admission that the burden of proof is on the narratives, not on those who doubt htem. What harmonizing shows is that despite appearances, the texts still might be true. This is a different thing than saying that the texts as they stand probably are true, that the burden of proof is on the person who would overturn


this supposedly unambiguous evidence for the resurrection. Conservative apologists often ignore all the discrepancies, or after they have harmonized them, they continue to pretend the texts constitute unambiguously positive evidence.

Worse yet, the gospel resurrection stories seem to be in conflict with an earlier version. Evangelical apologists are happy to be able to point to a resurrection text from about 56 A.D., i.e., I Corinthians chapter 15, where the resurrection of Jesus is used to refute Corinthian errorists who denied the future resurrection of believers. Paul was able to appeal to his preaching of Jesus' resurrection which his readers had accepted years before. The list of appearances there can be pushed back with reasonable probability to within a few years of the crucifixion. (Paul's material does not describe any appearances, however, and this will be important to keep in mind.) Though Paul's own writing does not go back so far, it is still several years earlier than the gospel's resurrection narratives. Any divergences between the two sets of material (i.e. between I Corinthians 15 and the gospels) may prove to be significant.

Apologists usually focus on the list of appearances quoted by Paul from tradition in verses 6-7. But one must not stop there. The way he goes on to use this material in the rest of his argument helps us reconstruct his understanding of the resurrection. In describing the future resurrection of the dead, Paul raises the question, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" (verse 35). The answer is that it will be a "spiritual body," not a natural or corruptible body such as we have now (verse 44). Paul says he knows this because believers will recapitulate the resurrection of Jesus himself (verses 48-49). He had a "spiritual body" of the kind Paul describes. Though Paul is not so presumptuous as to try and plumb this mystery completely, there is one thing he can say in description of this "spiritual body"-- it does not have flesh: "I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (verse 50). It follows that Jesus' body was not flesh either. In fact, Paul can say that Jesus by his resurrection "became a... spirit" (verse 45). We may have a similar idea expressed in I Peter 3:18, "In the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was raised to life."

To put it plainly, this conception of the risen Jesus is in direct contradiction to that presupposed in the later accounts of the gospels. The conception is exactly the opposite. Whereas Paul had said that the risen Jesus was "a spirit," not "flesh," Luke reports Jesus saying, "It is I myself! Touch me and see! No spirit has flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). To underline the point even more, the three evangelists who record appearances of Jesus describe the tactile reality of his flesh, even of his wounds (Luke 24:39-40; Matthew 28:9; John 20:27). They make Jesus "flesh," not a "spirit"!

I am quite aware of the harmonization offered here. As a matter of fact this harmonization is taken so much for granted that Evangelists do not realize that it is a harmonization. It so controls their reading of the texts that they never seem even to see the problem. Not noticing the "spirit" vs. "flesh" problem, they just assume that the "spiritual body" in I Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus' "ability to walk through walls" and his inability to be recognized at


first glance as allegedly reported in the gospels. But this harmonization rests on too superficial a reading of the gospel accounts. The sudden appearances and disappearances of the risen Jesus have little necessarily to do with any changed quality of his body. Rather, what seems to be in view is spatial teleportation.

The same thing happens elsewhere in Hellenistic religious biography, such as in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, where the philosopher Apollonius suddenly vanishes from the courtroom of the Emperor Domitian only to reappear elsewhere among his friends. His companions are startled, but Apollonius laughingly reassures them that despite his mode of travel, he is a flesh and blood mortal like themselves. Luke himself, who makes the most of Jesus' teleportation, gives another example of it in Acts. There Philip (who certainly has no risen "spiritual body") is supernaturally caught up after he baptizes the Ethiopian, reappearing near Azotus. (8:39-40).

As for the failure to recognize the risen Jesus, Luke attributes this not to any quality of the risen Jesus, but to an interference with the faculties of the witnesses. Luke 24:16 says, "They were kept from recognizing him," in practically the same terms as Luke uses elsewhere, in one of the passion predictions: "It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it" (9:45). Evangelicals who use this argument are probably subconsciously influenced most by the spurious passage Mark 16:12: "Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country." Even if this text were originally part of Mark, the context indicates that for some reason Jesus' appearance on this one occasion was different from that of the other resurrection encounters where he was recognizable.

In short, none of these data from the gospel accounts serves to harmonize them with Paul's earlier and quite different concept of the risen Jesus. The implication should be evident, as in fact it has been to several generations of New Testament scholars. Serious doubt must be cast on the historical reliability of these narratives; they are not only chronologically later than the (I Corinthians 15 tradition but they seem to be based on a later and contradictory understanding of the resurrection.

If the gospel resurrection narratives turned out not to be factual accounts based on eyewitness reporting, what is their origin? Evangelical apologists suppose that the only alternative is that they formed part of some kind of hoax as suggested long ago by the hostile skeptic Reimarus. This is evident from statements like the following:

"Legends" put in circulation and recorded by the original eyewitnesses are [tantamount to] deliberate inventions. (Anderson) [2]

... what would have motivated the disciples, in the face of their overwhelming discouragement, to create imaginary-- yet closely detailed-- resurrection accounts such as Luke 24:36-43? (Montgomery)[3]

There are two controlling yet unfounded assumptions at work here. The first is that if the resurrection accounts are not factual reports, then this must mean the resurrection itself never happened. The second is that if these accounts are not factual reports, they


still were written by the immediate disciples of Jesus, and therefore must be lies. The apologists are only able to make these assumptions on the basis of their mistaken conclusion that the gospels are too early to admit of the intrusion of popular legends. Therefore they must realize that popular legends would not involve anyone in a charge of intentional fraud. Yet if the unbeliever can be induced to see the alternatives as "history or hoax," the apologist's task is easier. It is a little difficult for any intelligent person to imagine that Christianity is based on a huge fraud.

In the last chapter I argued for the theoretical possibility of a popular legendary element in the gospels. Now I will look at some positive data which make it not unreasonable to see the resurrection narratives as legends. I will not be attempting to prove that these accounts are legends, only that to view them as legendary is not historically outrageous as the apologists hold.

Charles Talbert, in What is a Gospel?, has demonstrated that in Jesus' era philosophers, kings, and other benefactors were often glorified in terms of ancient legend. Heroes of antiquity such as Romulus and Hercules were rewarded for their labors by "apotheosis"-- i.e., they were taken up into heaven and divinized. Their ascent into heaven was supposedly seen by gaping eyewitnesses (as in the case of Romulus) or was at least evidenced by the absence of any bodily remains. The hero might even reappear to his mourning friends to encourage or direct them. Not only were such legends circulating about mythical figures of the past, but the same stories would be applied in popular imagination to more recent or contemporary figures such as Apollonius of Tyana, the Emperor Augustus, and the prophet Peregrinus. In fact, so many contemporary figures were divinized that the whole practice came to be satirized, e.g., in Seneca's The Pumpkinification of Claudius. Thus Michael Green is simply mistaken when he reassures his readers that "nobody had ever attributed divinity and a virgin birth, resurrection and ascension to a historical person whom lots of people knew." [4] The application of this kind of glorification legend to Jesus (as to other historical figures like Augustus and Apollonius) is to be distinguished from the older, wholly speculative theory that Jesus' resurrection was derived from vegetation cults centering around mythical dying-and-rising deities like Adonis, Sandan, or Attis.

In the light of these tendencies it is not difficult to understand the gospels' resurrection narratives as based on legends that had grown up to glorify Jesus. To recognize the possibility of this, one need not assume that there was no resurrection. Indeed it was precisely because of experiences of some kind (such as those intriguingly listed but not described by Paul in verse 15) that anyone cared to glorify Jesus. But the growth of legends describing appearances of Jesus in physical terms would help explain the development between Paul's "spiritual body" version of the resurrection and the physicalized conception in the gospels.

Such historical data go a long way toward stultifying apologetical standbys like the old "empty tomb argument." One hardly need exercise himself over whether "either the Jewish or Roman authorities or Joseph of Arimathea removed the body"[5] (Anderson), if the whole story may be understood as an apotheosis legend. The inability of anyone to find a single one of his bones had convinced his companions


that Hercules had indeed been taken to Mt. Olympus. Men assumed that Aristeaus had gone into heaven because he was no more to be seen. Aeneas was known to have joined the gods when after a battle his body was nowhere to be found. Romulus ascended from another battlefield as evidenced by the fact that no one cuold find so much as a fragment of his body or his clothes. One might include here the Old Testament stories of Enoch and Elijah (both of whom were objects of considerable speculation in Jesus' milieu). Both were taken up to be with God, the result of which was that no trace of either could be found (Genesis 5:24; II Kings 2:16-18; cf. Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

In more recent (i.e., non-mythical) times, the philosopher Empedocles disappeared after an evening meal with his friends and could not be found, and together with a voice from heaven, this proved he must have ascended. Another philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus, was said by later legend to have heeded the summons of heavenly voices to "go upwards from earth"; his friends searched the temple from which he had disappeared but could find no remains. Is it surprising that Christians would eventually circulate a story wherein mourning friends came to Jesus' tomb only to find no trace of his body and to be told by an angel that he has been "raised"?

Stories of the physical reappearance of Jesus to comfort or command his followers would also fit into this pattern. Ovid records this appearance of Romulus, after he had ascended from the battlefield.

Proculus Julius was coming from the Alba Longa; the moon was shining, he was not using a torch. Suddenly the hedges on the left shook and moved. He shrank back and his hair stood on end. Beautiful and more than human and clothed in a sacred robe, Romulus was seen, standing in the middle of the road. He said, "Stop the (Romans) from their mourning; do not let them violate my divinity with their tears; order the pious crowd to bring incense and worship the new [god] Quirinus."... He gave the oder and he vanished into the upper world from before Julius' eyes." [6]

In another text strikingly reminiscent of the gospel accounts, Philostratus tells the story of a doubting pupil of the departed Apollonius of Tyana:

This young boy would never agree to the immortality of the soul. "I, my friends, am completing the tenth month of praying to Apollonius to reveal to me the nature of the soul. But he is completely dead so as never to respond to my begging, nor will I believe he is not dead." Such were the things he said then, but on the fifth day after that they were busy with these things and he suddenly fell into a deep sleep right where he had been talking.... he, as if insane, suddenly leaped to his feet... and cried out, "I believe you!" When those present asked him what was wrong, he said "Do you not see Apollonius the sage, how he stands here among us, listening to the argument and singing wonderful verses concerning the soul?... He came to discuss with me alone concerning the things which I would not believe."[7]


The research done by Talbert and others makes the set of alternatives proposed by the apologists (i.e., "hoax or history") a false one. It is considerations like this which make works like Andersons' The Evidence for the Resurrection hopelessly out of date. In this book, and a large number of others like it, the aoplogists manage to effect a resurrection of their own-- they bring back the deists and rationalists of the eighteenth century as their opponents in debate. The apologists assume that their opponents, the imagined advocates of the "wrong tomb" and "swoon" theories, etc., agree that the gospel resurrection accounts are substantially accurate even down to the details. Otherwise, for instance, Edwin Yamauchi could hardly dismiss the possibility that grave robbers removed Jesus' body, merely by an appeal to the Johannine notation that Jesus' shroud was left behind. Yamauchi assumes that his opponents will accept the Johannine narrative at face value as he himself does. Unforunately, such easy targets have long since vanished. Rationalists and deists like Paulus and Venturini used to argue this way since, oddly, they held to the near-inerrancy of the texts' reportage of events, yet claimed that apparent miracles were to be explained naturalistically! That Anderson has only such people in mind is obvious from a quote like this: "The only rationalistic interpretations of any merit admit the sincerity of the records, but try to explain them without recourse to the miraculous."[8] New Testament scholarship has long since left both Anderson and Venturini behind, since it has shown at least that the facticity of the resurrection narratives cannot be simply taken for granted. Granted they are not lies, they may yet be legendary.

Montgomery, Stott, Lewis, and others point to the "vivd detail" in the narratives as proof of eyewitness authorship. A favorite text adduced in this regard is John 20:3-8, "[an] eyewitness account in a vivid, yet restrained, passage [which]... records the visit of Peter and John to the tomb"[9] (Anderson). "The account [John] gives of this incident... bears unmistakable marks of first-hand experience"[10] (Stoss). I invite the reader to open his New Testament to this text and compare it to a passage from Chariton's Chaireas and Kalliroe, a fiction novel written probably in the first century B. C. It concerns a girl, mistakenly entombed alive, who has been removed by grave robbers.

Chaireas was guarding and toward dawn he approached the tomb.... When he came close, however, he found the stones moved away and the entrance open. He looked in and was shocked, seized by a great perplexity at what had happened. Rumor made an immediate report to the Syracusans about the miracles. All then ran to the tomb; no one dared to enter until Hermocrates ordered it. One was sent in and he reported everything accurately. It seemed incredible-- the dead girl was not there.... [When Chaireas] searched the tomb he was able to find nothing. Many came in after him, disbelieving. Amazement seized everyone, and some said as they stood there: "The shroud has been stripped off, this is the work of grave robbers; but where is the body?"[11]

I am not suggesting that John or the other evangelists used this novel as a source. I mean only to show that vivid descriptions of


empty tombs and abandoned graveclothes prove nothing about "eyewitness authorship" since we find them also in an admitted work of fiction.

Does anyone think the story of the two disciples meeting the unrecognized Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) reads too much like vivid eyewitness testimony to be considered legend? Then let him consider the parallel provided by a votive tablet posted in the healing shrine of the god Asclepius in Epidauros, Egypt, in the fourth century B. C.:

Sosastra, of Pherae, had a false pregnancy. In fear and trembling she came in a litter and slept here. But she had no clear dream [the usual medium for revealing the inspired prescription from the god] and started for home again. Then, near Curni she dreamt that a man, comely in appearance, fell in with her and her companions; when he learned about their bad luck he bade them set down the litter on which they were carring Sosastra; then he cut open her belly, removed an enormous quantity of worms-- two full basins; then he stiched up her belly and made the woman well; then Asclepius revealed his presence and bade her send thank-offerings for the cure to Epidaurus. [12]

The apologists assure us that the resurrection appearances could not have been hallucinations. They seem indignant that anyone should think to trouble them with such absurd notions. First, they claim that the disciples were hardly the kind of "highly strung and imaginative types" to have hallucinations. Anderson claims that too many of Jesus' disciples were too "hardheaded" and "prosaic" for this.[13] But just how "hardheaded" would we call someone who left his family and livelihood to join a wandering Galilean healer? How "prosaic" is a man who exclaims, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name," or "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven on them?" Such a person is obviously moving in a realm far removed from the "prosaic"!

Another contention of the apologists is that:

Hallucinations are highly individualistic because their source is the subconscious mind of the recipient. No two persons will experience exactly the same phenomena. But the crowd of five hundred [mentioned in I Corinthians 15] claimed to have experienced the same "hallucination," at the same time and place. And other groups, both large and small, experienced the same "hallucination." (Anderson)[14]

Unfortunately the facts again fail to bear out such generalized assertions. I am not sure where Anderson, McDowell, Green and others get their information on the supposed "laws of hallucinations," but in fact collective hallucinations are a well-known phenomenon discussed, for instance, in G. N. M. Tyrell's Apparitions and D. H. Rawcliffe's The Psychology of the Occult. But to take one particularly relevant example of mass visions, let us return momentarily to Gershom Scholem's remarks on the messianic revival of Sabbatai Sevi:

The people of Smyrna saw miracles and heard prophecies, providing the best possible illustration of Renan's remark about the infectious character of visions. It is enough for one member


of a group sharing the same beliefs to claim to have seen or heard a supernatural manifestation, and the others too will see and hear it. Hardly had the report arrived from Aleppo that Elijah had appeared in the Old Synagogue there, and Elijah walked the streets of Smyrna. Dozens, even hundreds, had seen him.... A letter written in Constantinople notes apparitions of Elijah "whom many have seen."[15]

Visions of Sabbatai Sevi himself after his death were "very common in many circles of the believers."[16] These instances of mass visions are all the more striking since they occur in circumstances closely analogous to those of the resurrection appearances themselves.

The key thing to recognize is that in a group hallucination not all the participants necessarily see the very same thing! We can easily imagine a mass-psychological chain-reaction in which everyone present seems to see an absent person acording to the particular image of that person contained in his or her memory. Paul does not tell us "He was seen by over five hundred brethren at one time, and they all compared notes, and after an exhaustive series of interviews it was determined that all without exception saw Jesus wearing a red cloak over a white tunic, holding out nail-scarred hands." All we can be sure of is that they all saw their mental image of Jesus, doing or saying something.

In fact one ancient Christian document envisions precisely this possibility on an analogous occasion. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter we read of a scene in which Peter leads a group of charismatically endowed women in a collective visionary experience.

Then Peter said to them, "Tell us what you saw." And they said, "We saw an old man, who had such a presence as we cannot describe to you"; but others said, "We saw a growing lad"; and others said, "We saw a boy who gently touched our eyes, and so our eyes were opened,"... So Peter praised the Lord, saying,... "God is greater than our thoughts, as we have learned from the aged widows, how they have seen the Lord in a variety of forms." (chapter 21)[17]

Or compare a series of visions of the Virgin Mary which began in Dordogne, France, in 1889. Here is the description of George Barton Cutten in his classic treatment The Psychological Phenomena of Christianity:

A neurotic child of eleven years, named Mary Magoutier, was the first to see the vision. She saw a figure like the statues in the churches in a hole in a wall situated in a lonely place. The vision next appeared to children of her own age, and then to a large number of peasants, both men and women. The suggestion was general, and each one filled in and particularized for himself. For this reason, while the visions were similar, the details differed. To some the Virgin appeared dressed in white, to others in black; sometimes she was veiled and sometimes not; sometimes the figure was large and at other times small; sometimes the body was luminous, or lights were attached to the shoulders or breasts; at times the surroundings also changed.... On August 11 more than fifteen hundred persons visited the wall, and many of these saw the Virgin...." [18]


But were the disciples in the proper psychological state to experience hallucinations? Clark Pinnock does not think so:

It is striking that all of the factors favorable to the hallucination hypothesis are absent from the New Testament. The resurrection caught everyone off guard. The disciples were surprised and disbelieving for joy (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19). They needed convincing themselves. Jesus did not come into an atmosphere of wishful thinking.[19]

Or to put it slightly differently, C. S. Lewis maintains that:

... any theory of hallucination breaks down on the fact (and if it is invention it is the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man) that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus (Luke xxiv. 13-31; John xx. 15, xxi. 4). [20]

Pinnock and Lewis mean that while hallucinatory visions are supposed to occur only to those primed for them by sentimental or enthusiastic longing, the disciples are pictured as being so disillusioned as to be skeptical that it was really the risen Christ they were seeing! If the resurrection appearances were really the result of wishful thinking, how could the disciples have been doubtful, as the narratives depict?

Once again, these arguments are vitiated by their assumption that the resurrection accounts must be historically accurate. But what if these narratives are legends? In this case (and contra the apologists, it is well within the realm of possibility), the picture changes considerably. In the context of religious legend, the reported skepticism of the disciples is not "the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man." (Lewis)

Such an "invention" would not be odd in the least. We find several other examples of it in miracle stories that no one would deny are legendary. At the ancient healing shrine of Epidauros, there survive numerous testimonial inscriptions, either actually left there by "satisfied customers" or composed by the priests for advertisement purposes. One tells of a man whose fingers were crippled. He came to the healing temple, but "he disbelieved in the healings and he sneered at the inscriptions." Yet in his mercy, the healing god Ascepios restored his hand, despite the man's unbelief. Similarly, the one-eyed Ambrosia of Athens came to the shrine with doubts in her mind: "as she walked around the temple of healings, she mocked some things as incredible and impossible, that the lame and blind could be healed at only seeing a dream." Yet Asclepios takes pity and heals her anyway. Another suppliant who actually has an empty eye-socket goes to the shrine for help. This time it is the bystanders who mock-- surely this is too great a task even for Asclepios. Nonetheless the man is given a completely new eye!

In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the hero pinpoints the cause of a plague in Ephesus as a demon. We are told that Apollonius points out an old blind beggar and directs the crowd to stone him to death! Understandably, the crowd is skeptical! But Apollonius knows best. He prevails, and the old man is revealed as a "devil in disguise"; beneath the heap of stones is found no human


corpse, but rather that of a huge dog!

Another example occurs in a legend about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who lived in the first century A.D. Some friends are on their way to his house to ask him to pray for the recovery of a sick boy. But as they arrive, the rabbi meets them with the announcement that the fever has left the boy! They are surprised and a bit skeptical, since they haven't even made their request! They retort, "What? Are you a prophet?" But Hanina is right-- it turns out that the fever left the boy "at that moment." [21]

In all these stories, the skepticism of the characters functions as a literary device to magnify the miracle worked by the hero. He was able to "pull it off" despite the doubts of everyone! By his might works the hero (Asclepios, Apollonius, or Hanina ben Dosa) silences the skeptics. If the gospels' resurrection accounts are legendary in character, a possibility that the apologists have not satisfactorily eliminated, then "the disbelief of the disciples" would be a perfectly natural element in the story. Their disbelief functions to highlight the glory of the resurrection, since it is able to overcome their skepticism. Now maybe the disciples are shown as doubting and then being converted because this is the way it happened. But this is not hte only way to account for the skepticism motif. It would also make sense seen as part of a legendary story. In this case we cannot take the resurrection accounts as unambiguous proof that the resurrection visions of the disciples were not preceded by a favorable psychological state, whatever that might be.

Another commonly rehearsed apologetic argument is that only the resurrection of Jesus can explain the "transformation of the disciples." Anderson poses the question:

What about the apostles themselves? What changed the little company of sad and defeated cowards into a band of irresistible missionaries who turned the world upside down because no opposition could deter them? [22]

This is what Frank Morison, in his imaginative book Who Moved The Stone?, calls "the miracle of the conversion of the disciples." [23] The point is that the disciples were so badly disillusioned after Jesus' execution that nothing short of a resurrection could have snapped them out of it. This judgement is surely premature, psychologically speaking. Before asking the question of what psychological dynamics would be at work in a situation like that of the disappointed disciples, let me recount a few analogous cases of messianic disillusionment.

I have already had occasion to mention the shocking apostasy of messiah Sabbatai Sevi. I think it would have to be admitted that the apostasy of the messiah would be a pill quite as bitter as the crucifixion of the messiah. What happened to the Sabbatian movement when Sabbatai Sevi donned the Muslim turban in order to save his life? For one thing, there was a flood of theological rationalizations forthcoming from the faithful. Suddenly, it seemed that Nathan of Gaza and others had made "passion predictions" long before, though these claims were doubtful. Old Testament passages were interpreted in such a way as to have predicted the apostasy. Also, a plethora of redemption-theories made the rounds. Sabbati had become a Muslim in order to redeem the Turks and other Gentiles.


Or, he had committed apostasy so as to plumb the lowest depths of evil and transform it into good. Or, he had actually been translated to heaven, while a phantom look-alike went through the motions of apostasy! Perhaps some of this sounds familiar! At any rate, it is important to note that no supernatural event was necessary to stop the movement from collapsing over this event, which one would imagine to have been fatally disillusioning. But the Sabbatian movement endured for several generations! Gershom Scholem suggests that the messianic fervor in which believers had spent so many months was so powerfully real in their minds that no external events could shake it.

There are several other instances of disappointed apocalyptic movements nearer to our own day. The Millerite movement staked everything on the return of Christ occuring in 1843. Two different target dates fell through, but this was not the end of Adventist faith. With a theological adjustment or two, the movement became what is today known as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a worldwide missionary movement. A convenient vision led Adventists to believe that the coming of Christ in judgement had indeed occured on the date predicted, only the "investigative judgement" took place in heaven, not on earth as previously assumed. The Jehovah's Witness sect has used a similar maneuver to save face several times. The most famous of these was in 1914 when Christ should have come to rule the earth in person. The date passed, but no Christ. Well, it seem that on that date Christ had indeed taken up his reign invisibly, from heaven!

Psychologically, what is going on here? How can the obvious disconfirmation of religious beliefs matter so little to believers? Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter have devoted a famous study (When Prophecy Fails) to this very question. Their theory rests on the notion of "cognitive dissonance" reduction. This is the psychological mechanism whereby a person reduces the tension caused by the clash of a belief with contrary facts, either by jettisoning the belief or by reinterpreting or ignoring the facts. When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and "burned their bridges behind them," only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow-believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem. (Remember the "truth by majority vote" strategy of "witnessing" described in Chapter 2.) In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground!

The disciples had certainly committed themselves irrevocably to follow Jesus: "Lo, we have left everything to follow you" (Matthew 19:27). Their expectations were great; Jesus was the Messiah who would soon bring eschatological liberation to Israel: "We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). It was therefore unthinkable for Jesus to die: "God forbid, Master! This must never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22). Yet Jesus did die! And what happened? As the Roman historian Tacitus put it,


Christian faith "thus checked for the moment, again broke out." Luke records the amazing surge of proselytizing emanating from Jerusalem. Of course, the message had changed somewhat-- now Jesus wasn't immediately going to "restore the Kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6). Instead, he had established a spiritual kingdom, reigning now from heaven instead of earth as had first been expected. But, as Anderson said, this message did soon "turn the world upside down." Does the historian need a miraculous resurrection to explain all this? Or would the psychological dynamics of cognitive dissonance reduction serve just as well?

None of this proves that the resurrection didn't happen, but it implies that the line of reasoning pursued in the "transformation of the disciples" argument is not compelling. They could have been "transformed" as other disillusioned disciples have been, by a more modest means than a resurrection.

A relatively new apologetic argument for the resurrection is offered by George E. Ladd. His book, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, contains a fascinating survey of Old Testament and intertestamental Jewis opinions on the resurrection of the dead:

Some believed in the resurrection of a gross physical body; others in a transformed body. However, wherever resurrection appears, it is always eschatological. It is resurrection at the end of the age. We have found nothing in either the Old Testament or contemporary Judaism to help us explain the rise of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. [24]

The implication is that the belief in Jesus' resurrection was so dissimilar to common ideas that it could have only arisen from the fact of the resurrection itself.

Amazingly, the most relevant piece of evidence lies unnoticed directly beneath Ladd's scholarly nose! Why range far and wide into Jewish pseudepigraphical literature, when texts such as this one lie ready at hand? "Jesus' name had become well-known. Some were saying, 'John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him'" (Mark 6:14). Thus we know from the gospels themselves that people did believe in the resurrection of individuals before the general resurrection of the end time. Not only so, but the Marcan passage indicates that the public appearances of Jesus were interpreted by many as resurrection appearances of John, a prophet martyred by a tyrant! John had been vindicated by God as could be seen by the exercise of miraculous power. We find the same idea expressed regarding Jesus in Romans 1:4-- Jesus has been declared Son of God "with power [Greek dunamis, the same word for "miracle" in Mark 6:14] by the resurrection". The New Testament itself tells us that some had already suspected that John was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). What do we have here? Certain extraordinary events lead people to believe that a cruelly martyred holy man, suspected to be the Messiah, has been raised from the dead, displaying miraculous power. And all this only months before Jesus' crucifixion. The disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection was not absolutely unprecedented in their milieu.

Much is made of the "empty tomb" argument. I said that the possibility of accounting for the empty tomb stories as legendary "apotheosis narratives" considerably lessens the force of arguments


about whetehr the women could have visited the wrong tomb, or "who moved the stone." The apologists cannot prove that we know enough of the circumstances of Jesus' burial and of Easter morning to lend weight to such speculations. For all we know, the disciples may not have known where Jesus was buried. One tradition preserved in Acts hints that it was the enemies of Jesus who buried his body. (13:29). Or, as Strauss argued, perhaps the disciples took off immediately for Galilee, far from the grave of Jesus, where their visions could build their resurrection-faith with no danger of disconfirmation from an occupied tomb. It is hard to imagine that the disciples could have believed in Jesus' resurrection in any form, much less persuaded others, if the occupied tomb of Jesus had stood there refuting them by its very presence! But we just can't be sure we know enough about the setting of the rise of resurrection faith to be sure that this was the situation. Maybe the disciples didn't know what happened to the body; their faith in the resurrection would have made it superfluous for them to try to find out!

Suppose the Sanhedrin knew the whereabouts of Jesus' corpse. Why didn't they make short work of the apostles' preaching by producing the body? Michael Green feels sure they would have: "They could easily have rectified the situation by triumphantly producing it when the Christians started spreading the story of the resurrection." [25] One strategic detail always seems to escape the scrutiny of the apologists at this point. According to the New Testament itself, Christians began to "spread the story of the resurrection" seven weeks after Jesus' death (Acts chapter 2-- the Day of Pentecost). What good would it have done to produce an unrecognizable decayed corpse? Lazarus, we are told, had already started decomposing after a mere four days ("by this time he stinketh")! "Producing the body" would have been a waste of time, since they could never hope to prove whose body it was!

Again, this chapter has not aimed to "disprove" the resurrection. It has simply shown how the evidence, contrary to apologists' claims, can be explained in alternate, very plausible ways. Their belief in the value of truth should compel Christians to stop making claims that the evidence is unequivocal if in fact it is not. And what would be lost by such an admission? Probably just excuses for weak faith. "Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed." (John 20:29).

At the conclusion of most apologetical arguments for the resurrection we meet with what is essentially an evangelistic appeal to David Hume, as if the philosophical skeptic could come back from the grave and repent. Hume wrote: "... no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish...." [26] The apologists are satisfied that they have so well refuted all alternative explanations for the Easter event that it will now require more faith to deny the resurrection than to believe in it! They have now cornered the skeptic, who they believe must now face the facts and accept this "evidence that demands a verdict." If he doesn't, he will be intellecutally dishonest.

It should be obvious by now that I think the poor skeptic still has quite a few loopholes through which to escape if he wishes. But


I would like to make a different point here. It seems to me that I have heard the mirror-image of this argument before in a very different context. On the issue of biblical inerrancy many of these same apologists demand precisely the "out" which they deny to the skeptic. [27] I think I can demonstrate what I have in mind with a chart:

[Editor's Note: In the hardcopy version of Beyond Born Again, this chart appeared as a two-column chart, with "The Believer in Inerrancy" appearing as the left column and "The Doubter of the Resurrection" on the right. It has been reformatted in the HTML version so that the use of NetScape table extensions (which will not work on some browsers) can be avoided.]

The Believer in Inerrancy: We as Evangelicals cannot be too careful in defending our faith in an inerrant scripture.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: We as naturalists cannot be too careful in upholding our belief in a closed system of natural causation.

The Believer in Inerrancy: We know that some unbelieving Modernists allege errors to exist in the Bible, such as the order of Peter's denials and the number of cock-crows.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: We know that some irrational supernaturalists claim that miracles have occured, such as the resurrection of Jesus.

The Believer in Inerrancy: If we were to admit the presence of contradictions or errors, we would have no assurance of any sure word from God.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: If we were to admit the reality of events like the resurrection, we would have no defense against all kinds of superstition.

The Believer in Inerrancy: How do we meet these allegations? By all means let us propose solutions and harmonizations-- e.g., that Peter denied Jesus 6, 8, or 9 times, indeed as many as necessary.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: What shall we say to the apologists for Christianity? By all means let us take refuge in alternative explanations, such as the Swoon Theory, the Wrong Tomb Theory, or the Hallucination Theory.

The Believer in Inerrancy: But aboev all, let us not lose our confidence in the truthful character of our God. Surely this faith should make us stop short of admitting error in His Word. God cannot err.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: But if all else fails, let us never abandon our rational commitment to a closed system of cause-and-effect. Science must rule out the possibility of a "resurrection". Miracles just don't happen.

The Believer in Inerrancy: Even if we cannot find any satisfactory way to solve an apparent discrepancy in scripture, let us assure ourselves that one day, even if in heaven, we will be given that solution.
The Doubter of the Resurrection: Even if we should have to admit that no alternative explanation accounts for the evidence of Easter morning as well as the so-called resurrection dones, let us rationally assure ourselves that one day we will find the answer.

Sometimes, it seems, Evangelicals are not so quick to "demand a verdict."

[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]

"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.