The New Testament’s Biggest Lie

It’s Jesus’ Second Tomb They Should Be Looking For

Seminaries exist to manufacture clergy, hence none will ever make a top-ten list of academic institutions committed to critical/skeptical thinking. The Existence-of-God Question (does he or doesn’t he?), naturally, is off the table. Well, they may pretend that it isn’t, but the hordes of those destined for the pulpit don’t get an immersion in atheist thought; they learn the robust defenses of the faith spun by apologists.

But at liberal seminaries like Boston University School of Theology, which I attended, smart professors know where the cracks in Christian façade are, where the stones have come loose and tumbled to the ground. Thus it was so easy one day for one of my instructors to remark, “What, after all, is the value of a forty-day resurrection?” This was a reference to the report in the Book of Acts 1 that, forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven: that final earthly phase of his stay on earth was over. My teacher knew, of course, that the ascension of the living-dead body of Jesus to heaven couldn’t possibly have happened. That belief really is off the table.

The New Testament authors did not know that there is no heaven “up there” for Jesus to ascend to—to be positioned at the right hand of God. We see the results of their rich fantasy life: In the Book of Acts, chapter 7, the martyred Stephen proclaims, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (v.56). Christian apologists will rush to explain, “Ah, but this is metaphor, this is symbolism.” Which is their way of saying, “It didn’t really happen.” Well, that is obvious—thus it is also obvious is that the body of Jesus never left planet Earth. So…wait for it…he died again, and was presumably buried again. Period. So much for conquering death. So much as well for the assurance that the apostle Paul gives in Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” His theology is a long stroll down a blind alley.

Adamant Christians who insist, “But the Ascension did happen, just as the Bible says it did,” face a hard choice. As the British scholar A.N. Wilson pointed out in his 1992 book Jesus (p.3), “…a man ascending vertically from the Mount of Olives, by whatever means of miraculous propulsion, would pass into orbit.” So if Jesus is “up there”—since there is no heaven up there—he presumably must still be in orbit, awaiting the day of his return. But our knowledge of a rotating Earth in orbit around a star that orbits the galactic center—this knowledge collides head-on with the biblical view of God sitting on his throne in a heaven not far beyond the clouds. This is a concrete example of a scientific fact falsifying a point of theology.

But let’s get back down to the ground level to deal with the problem of the dead Jesus, the really dead Jesus this time. The stark truth is that the New Testament authors lied; they told a big one. They are guilty of a cover-up: they didn’t report what actually happened to Jesus at the end of his life. And if the body of Jesus rotted away in a second tomb—or just a grave, more likely—then my old professor’s question about the value of a forty-day resurrection cannot be avoided. All that Easter morning drama? So what?

Supposedly Jesus conquered death by being resurrected, i.e., walking out of that tomb on Easter morning. A lot of decomposition takes place in three days, and I guess the miracle here was God cancelled that process so that Jesus could walk out. Death was stopped in its tracks.

But one of the forever-unanswered questions is this: How does the body of a first century peasant coming back to life have consequences for the rest of us? Namely—as the church has claimed—that it guarantees that all subsequent humans have a shot at eternal life, that their souls can go to heaven, however you want to put it, whatever “heaven” is supposed to mean. How does the newly alive body of a first century man accomplish that? This is just another generous helping of magical thinking. And to say that, “It’s God’s mysterious engineering for salvation” doesn’t make it any less magical. The apostle Paul added an extra clause to the contract: for it all to work, you have to believe that Jesus rose from the dead: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

If I wanted to add to the confusion—well, okay I do—we also need to deal with Paul’s concept of the “spiritual” body. When he assures the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4:16-17) that their dead relatives will pop out of their graves to meet Jesus coming in the sky, he could not have imagined rotting flesh floating out of the ground, any more than he would have approved the wounded body of Jesus walking out of a tomb. He would have been nonplussed by the story in John 20 of Doubting Thomas being invited by Jesus (v.27) to stick his finger in the Jesus’ sword wound. The flesh that went into a tomb or grave would vanish, or so Paul promised in I Corinthians 15:52-54: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality.”

A. N. Wilson also made this comment that helps put the New Testament lie into perspective. He declares that the resurrection story is “…palpably and obviously untrue–bodies do not, in our kosmos, resurrect themselves.” (Jesus, p. 66) Hence a forty-day resurrection has no value, above all, because it never happened. Pagan religions featured dying-rising gods, so it’s no great mystery where the novelists who wrote the gospels got the idea. If we want to avoid the harsh word “lie,” we can more generously say that the resurrection of Jesus is a fantasy, a rumor that got of out hand, a tall tale that had enormous appeal. But in terms of leveling with us about what happened to dead Jesus, it’s a lie. The Jesus mythicist scholars, who argue that the Jesus story is pious fiction from start to finish, are not surprised that the story has such a myth-soaked conclusion.

Of course, devout Christian biblical archaeologists, who can’t help themselves, will forever be on the hunt for the tomb that was visited, on that glorious first Easter, by the cast of characters invented in the gospels. But here’s the 64-Thousand-Dollar-Question: will they go for the big headlines if, perchance, they locate the grave that would explode their faith? The real grave of the Galilean peasant whose story is unknown—and will probably never come to light.

[Homework Alert: Could Paul’s hallucinations have convinced him that Jesus had been solely a celestial being? That is, no life on earth, no death on earth, no ascension to heaven because that’s where the whole drama had taken place. Thus the resurrection had nothing to do with a physical body that would be subject to death again. If this was Paul’s delusion, thus Christ “…will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” would fit snuggly into his theology. To explore this line of inquiry, see Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 514-528.]

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.