Easter Special: How to Fake a Resurrection (Without Really Trying) Part 2April 5, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
Let’s continue yesterday’s discussion of a plausible, non-supernatural scenario that would produce the current Christian belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. So far, we’re up to Stage One: The Empty Tomb. A group of rogue disciples, without the knowledge or permission of the Apostles or most of the other disciples, has moved Jesus’ body out of the rich man’s tomb and taken it to a resting place that was more suitable (in their view). The main body of the disciples, however, does not know this, and is astonished to find the tomb empty. The emotional distress and sensational nature of the disappearance instantly turn this story into the kind of rumor that spreads like fire through dried leaves, and within a few days, everyone in the region is talking about this bizarre turn of events.
The situation is ripe for Stage Two.
Stage Two: The Spiritual Resurrection
As we mentioned yesterday, one of the prerequisites we need for this to work is a people who believe in a spiritual reality that is more true, more real, and more significant than earthly, materialistic reality. Christians were just such a body of believers, as Jesus had taught them to be. But reality can intrude in harsh and confusing ways, as when your prophet is suddenly and unexpectedly arrested, executed and buried. Take the very real trauma of the death of a loved one, compounded by the suddenness and violence of his death, and then compounded yet again by the inexplicable disappearance of his very body, and you have a highly volatile and unstable mixture of psychosocial elements.
Psychological studies have shown that bereavement often produces hallucinations of contact with the recently-deceased (as high as 80% of elderly survivors, for instance). This very common and very human experience usually causes no problems, even when people superstitiously attribute it to actual ghosts. In the context of the death of Jesus, however, this simple, fallible hallucination has all the right ingredients to blossom into a full-fledged Messianic Resurrection delusion, striking first in a small group of grieving women and then spreading to the larger body of disciples.
Normally, people who experience hallucinations of contact with the dead are at least vaguely aware of the fact that their perceptions are subjective rather than being some external, physical phenomenon. When coupled with belief in a supernatural spiritual reality, however, such hallucinations can lead a person to conclude that their perceptions are no mere illusion, but an actual, objectively-real experience outside the normal realms of space and time. This kind of mental context produces what I call an “invincible” faith—you can’t disprove it by physical evidence, because it doesn’t need to be consistent with literal, real-world truth. In the eye of the believer, it’s a “spiritual” truth, and therefore has no need to correspond to any particular material circumstances.
This sort of thinking is unremarkable and even commonplace among believers. For example, believers do not need to have a second experience of making their entire body pass through a vagina in order to claim that they have been truly born again. It’s a “spiritual” reality, and therefore does not need to be consistent with literal, physical birth. It’s the same way with inviting Jesus to come into your heart (even though he’s not literally inside your physical heart) and with having God speak to you (even though no literal words are actually literally spoken or literally heard).
Among sincere believers, a hallucination of Jesus after his death could very easily be seen as a genuine, spiritual experience of a genuine, spiritual resurrection. In fact, for the truly faithful, the spiritual truth is even more true than a mere materialistic, fleshly truth, because the outward form is perishable and perishing, and only the spiritual endures forever. Lazarus (allegedly) rose from the dead, and then died again. A spiritual resurrection is better than a physical one. At least at first—for those who already believe.
What consequences would we expect to find if the early disciples moved from Stage One (The Empty Tomb) to Stage Two (Spiritual Resurrection)? First and foremost, we would expect this experience to produce truly invincible faith. If Jesus rose from the dead in a spiritual body, as opposed to the physical body that was buried, then not even the actual corpse of Jesus would shake the Christian’s faith in the Resurrection. Does the existence of the cocoon disprove the butterfly?
The drawback to this invincible faith, however, is that it’s not as easy to sell to those who are not already believers, especially if they’re of a philosophical/skeptical mind. And interestingly, we see the very earliest Christian writings reflecting some of this problem. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, for example, may be one of the very earliest Christian documents, if not the very first. And in Chapter 15, we see him not only defending the idea of a spiritual resurrection, but also attempting to address the kinds of objections that a skeptic would naturally raise concerning the legitimacy of “resurrecting” something that was not a physical body.
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable..it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body…I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Notice how Paul emphasizes the contrast between the perishable, natural, flesh-and-blood body that you bury, and the imperishable spiritual “body” that is raised. The body that you “plant” is not the body that will be raised immortal, because perishable flesh and blood cannot inherit the imperishable. It’s a great argument, and it makes the physical, flesh-and-blood body of Jesus totally irrelevant to the truth of the Resurrection (for the believer anyway). Oh, you’ve got the old corpse? So what? That old thing can’t inherit the imperishable spiritual body anyway. Jesus was raised in a spiritual body.
The trouble with spiritual truth, though, is that it doesn’t really amount to much in the real world. To grow your religion, you need converts, and to make converts (especially in the philosophy-happy Greek provinces) you need something more solid than a resurrection that exists only in the minds of those who already believe.
That, incidentally, is another consequence of the Spiritual Resurrection stage: because this “resurrection” is a subjective experience that only takes place in the context of a pre-existing belief, only believers are going to be able to experience it. And that matches the evidence we have: Jesus “appeared” only to those who already believed in him. Even Paul, who supposedly converted on the road to Damascus, makes an oblique reference to “the goads” that were driving him towards a Christian faith even while he was kicking against them by persecuting Christians.
Thus, without any kind of miraculous intervention, we could produce an invincible faith in the spiritual “Resurrection” of Jesus that would make it pointless to even try to produce his original remains (which were probably in bad shape by then because the story tells us it disappeared before it could be properly embalmed). Christians could listen to the Jews claiming that the disciples took Jesus body, and just laugh. Jesus wasn’t in that body any more than he was in that empty tomb! He rose spiritually, like Paul said. Take that, Sanhedrin!
Stage Two is enough to launch the Resurrection story, and to imbue the disciples with the invincible faith that they would later become so famous for. All that’s left is for Stage Two to evolve into Stage Three.
Stage Three: Physical Resurrection
The Stage Two belief is good as far as it goes, but it has some drawbacks, as Paul found in trying to preach the Resurrection to the Jews at Corinth. For the spiritually mature, like Paul, the spiritual resurrection is not only good enough, it’s better than a physical one. But for spiritual babes, and for those that aren’t even ready for spiritual babehood yet, you need a resurrection that’s more true, more real, more…tangible. And fortunately (or unfortunately), all that takes is some ordinary human rationalization and equivocation.
We see this all the time in the lives and testimonies of believers. You know that what you say is true, deeply true, regardless of how the external appearances may look to unbelievers. Somehow you have to convince them. So you turn to your worldview, where “true” blurs into “real” and the difference between “real” (in the spiritual sense) and “real” (in the real-world sense) is vague and shifting. What’s more, you yourself crave reassurance that your own spiritual experiences were real, in the real-world sense. You begin to describe them in more tangible terms, and to think of them physically.
And in the process, you experience what psychologists have labeled the “rewriting” of your own memories. Even without conscious intent to deceive, it’s only natural for our minds to re-organize our experiences to reflect a history that’s more consistent with what we “know” the truth must have been. A synonym here, a slight shift of emphasis there, and a new myth emerges. The spiritual body is a real body, and the “real” body comes to mean physically real (while still remaining a “spiritual” body, in some sense). Spiritual truths take on a literal dimension, the literal resurrection of Jesus begins to out-compete the spiritual version of the story, and eventually displaces it completely, even in the minds of the apostles, because true means real and real means physical. In some sense.
It’s similar to the experience millions of Roman Catholics have every Mass. The priest takes the bread and the cup, recites a few short prayers, and for the believers in the congregation, the bread and wine are literally transformed into actual human flesh and actual human blood. Despite the very obvious observation that the substance of the bread and wine are not changed, the “deeper truth” (in the minds of the believers) is that the transformation does indeed take place. For the faithful, there’s a very very fine line between spiritual truth and physical reality, and sometimes it doesn’t exist at all. All it takes is just a slight shift in your frame of reference, and the “true” memory can be the physically real memory.
What consequences would result from Stage Two evolving into Stage Three? The first consequence is that it would make Christianity more successful outside its original territory than it was inside Palestine. People who weren’t around Jews a lot, and who didn’t live in provinces where it was widely reported that disciples took Jesus’ body, would be more open to the story that his actual physical body was physically raised from the dead.
We would also see a shift from the earlier epistles, like I Cor. 15 and its “spiritual resurrection,” to later stories, like the Gospels, that make the resurrection explicitly literal, and that insist that the buried body (the “seed that [was] planted”) must be the same body that rose (despite what Paul said earlier). And we’d see an odd mish-mosh of resurrection stories, in which Jesus sometimes appeared in his own, recognizable physical body, and sometimes behaved like a ghost, walking through locked doors, changing his appearance at will, and so on.
In other words, Stage Three would have taken over, but traces of Stage Two would still linger. This would not be a conscious change on the part of the disciples, so there wouldn’t be an overt attempt to revise the stories, but merely the natural evolution of “tweaking” and “fixing” things to make them fit better with what you “know” the truth must have been. And of course, none of this would diminish the invincible faith of the disciples, because at no time would they ever consciously lie about what they believed. “Jesus really did rise (in some sense),” and that’s the core of the Gospel, and that’s what they’re sticking to, even if the long decades did inject a little bit of drift into their understanding of what “rise” means.
What’s fascinating about this three-stage approach to faking a resurrection is that we can still see, in Christians today, all of the psychosocial mechanisms needed to turn a simple misplaced corpse into a full-blown Resurrected Christ. We still see Christians having subjective “spiritual” experiences that they attribute to God (or Satan). We still see Christians embracing “spiritual truth” as being genuinely true regardless of whether or not it corresponds to objective, material reality. We still see Christians spontaneously inventing just-so stories to account for discrepancies and inconsistencies in their beliefs. And we still see Christians building “world views” that consist of taking expedient interpretations as though they were original data, all without ever admitting or even recognizing that this was anything other than the Absolute Truth.
We can also see this in the story of the Ascension. One thing a fake resurrection can never do is to produce an actual, resurrected Messiah. No matter how invincible your faith, or how firm your belief in spiritual realities, if Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, then he can’t show up in real life to vindicate your faith and demonstrate the Gospel, no matter how much the Gospel says he wants to be with us for all eternity.
That’s a bit embarrassing, as year after year rolls by with no Risen Savior to show as the “firstfruits of the dead.” You need a good story to dispose of your Messiah somehow. Something convincing, and yet motivational, with a promise of good things to come (and a veiled threat for unbelievers as well). So you send him up to Heaven. Get all the disciples together, add a few angels, let him miraculously float up until he disappears in the clouds, and you’re done with him.
Except for the problem that there’s no Heaven up there for him to go to.
In the first century, you could get away with this. Nowadays, if you fly to Israel, you can see for yourself, firsthand, what’s up above all those clouds. And it isn’t Heaven. And what did Jesus Ascend to if there’s no Heaven up there?
Ask a Christian what the truth is about Heaven and the Ascension, and you’ll see all the mechanisms I mentioned above. Somehow, some way, they will convince themselves that Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is true, regardless of the real world facts about what’s really above the clouds. They know it’s true, regardless of whether or not it corresponds to the real world, and they’ll find some rationalization or speculation to convince themselves that it is true. It may be strained, it may sound silly to outsiders, but they will succeed, as far as their own beliefs are concerned.
And that’s my point. I used to think the Resurrection was the unshakable proof of the Christian faith, but now I know it isn’t hard to explain at all. All it takes to explain the Resurrection is to presume that Christians back then were pretty much the same as they are today. And that doesn’t take any miracle at all.