Here We Go Again with “He Is Risen!”

Wait…just how many resurrections were there?
The supreme killer text in the New Testament—the one that wipes out the story that Jesus rose from the dead—is a gift to us from the author of Matthew’s gospel. This is worth noting as Easter is upon us, but I wonder how many believers notice this text; or, for that matter, how many have done even a little due diligence on the gospel accounts of Easter morning.

My colleague at the Debunking Christianity Blog, Robert Conner, has offered a solid analysis in this book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story—and his sharp wit as well:

“I've long suspected that what the majority of people know about Christianity derives from its major holidays. They get their religion from Christmas cards and Easter imagery—thinking the Easter Bunny was one of the twelve apostles and candy eggs were on the menu at the Last Supper.” (Conner, Debunking Christianity Blog, 16 November 2018)

But yet another holiday, Halloween, comes to mind, when we read the supreme killer text, which Matthew inserts just as Jesus took his last breath:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:51-53)

This is the point at which Christians should say, “Okay, that’s it, we’re outta here.” Matthew has dropped the biggest clue imaginable that the New Testament trades in superstition. In any other context this story would be laughed off as a macabre detail in a horror novel. But Matthew was pushing the idea that the resurrection of Jesus had magical properties; so he alone came up with the fantastic account of a swarm of dead bodies coming alive as a consequence: “See, it works!” I suppose we have to give him credit for being creative.

But who would take this seriously, any more than we do the other famous resurrection fable found in John 11? If Matthew trades in superstition, the author of John’s gospel trades in bloated theology. The Raising of Lazarus is found only in John’s gospel—how in the world could the other gospels have missed this epic miracle?—because of that author’s superior talent for writing ponderous theology and passing it off as history.

The story was contrived to give Jesus occasion to utter those famous words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” John pounds the promise of eternal life relentlessly. No wonder this story is so beloved, especially since the humanizing ‘shortest verse in the Bible’ is also found here, “Jesus wept.”

Superstition prevailed at the time, so Matthew and John wrote what was, literally, acceptable; without a doubt, they wrote what they believed themselves. Nor, after all, was resurrection anything new. “…we can confirm several other examples of clearly pre-Christian dying-and-rising gods well known across the Romans empire…” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, pp. 170-171; see Carrier’s footnotes for details.) One of the favorite Christian dodges, when we point out incriminating Bible verses, is “You’re taking it out of context!” While in fact that is one of their failings; they do not see their religion in the context in which it arose; they are blind to the obvious borrowings.

There is yet another killer text that wipes out the resurrection story, this one penned by the author of Luke-Acts:

“…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:9-11)

Aside from flat-earth Christians who’ve not picked up any knowledge of astronomy, no one believes that this happened, even under the pretext that “it’s a mystery.” This is religious fantasy, in league with superstition and magical thinking. Even those who resort to “it’s a metaphor” cannot escape the inconvenient truth that the body of the newly alive Jesus never left planet earth.

Which can only mean—even for those who believe that Jesus rose from the dead—that he must have died again, and was buried again. How come the New Testament doesn’t tell us this? Isn’t this what we would call a cover-up? On so many grounds we’re super skeptical about Jesus coming back to life, but, in any case, the ‘miracle of the resurrection’ didn’t last all that long. I wonder: Did the resurrected Jesus hang out with his resurrected friend Lazarus before they both died for good a second time?

Listening Mode Disabled

Just a few days ago, a Christian left a warning on the Facebook page for my book, “Don’t listen to this apostate.” Protection of the faith would seem to depend, in large measure, on not listening. And not tuning in. For so many centuries the resurrection of Jesus was celebrated and touted as proof of the faith, but when serious thinkers, unencumbered by faith bias, did the analysis, the credibility of these gospel stories was shattered. How many ordinary believers, moreover, who study the stories carefully and critically, realize that they don’t make sense?

The Christian faith has been falsified on so many levels, and it is possible for ordinary readers to tune in. Especially regarding the resources that are now available on the resurrection—and there are more to come. A new John Loftus anthology is in the works, due for publication later this year, The Case Against Miracles. Michael Shermer wrote the Foreword, which includes this observation: “Loftus devotes a chapter to the resurrection and it is the best analysis I’ve ever read.”

But anyone who is curious, including Christians who have been advised ‘not to listen,’ don’t have to wait. They can read Richard Carrier’s essay, “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable,” in the 2010 Loftus anthology The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails; as well as two essays in the 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity: Matt McCormick’s “The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection”; and Robert Price’s “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle.”

There’s also the 490-page volume, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005, edited by Price and Lowder), with footnoting to die for, and a 16-page bibliography. All of these works address the vigorous Christian apologetic campaign to ‘prove’ that the resurrection must have happened, had to have happened, our-faith-will-die if it didn’t happen.

Defending the resurrection is risky business from the get-go because the Easter accounts float free of any grounding in history. Matt McCormick calls it correctly:

“…we have only a few stories (that conflict on many important details) recorded on the basis of unknown hearsay testimony decades after the fact, and lacking in any recorded attempt at soundly principled inquiry by anyone…” (p. 214)

Moreover, secular historians are not alone in their skepticism, as Robert Price points out:

“…modern New Testament scholars no longer take for granted that the Easter narratives are history at all. Why should they be? They are so much like similar apotheosis narratives of Hercules, Romulus, Apollonius, Empedocles, and others that the burden of proof is on anyone who would insist that, in the single case of Jesus, ‘myth became fact.’” (p. 220)

McCormick offers a lesson in how history is written—and the great caution required—by asking readers to consider the Salem Witch Trials in evaluating the gospel resurrection stories. There was no doubt in the 1690s that demonic possession was a fact: 19 people were hanged for witchcraft:

“We have signed, sworn testimonies of the very eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed—again, not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to unknown others, but from the eyewitnesses themselves immediately after it occurred. We even have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials such as Cotton Mather and John Hale. How much evidence do we have? Enough to fill a truck.

“Modern archives at the University of Virginia and elsewhere have thousands of documents, books, records, transcripts, affidavits, testimonials, and other works detailing the events. That there were witch trials that convicted the women is beyond a shadow of historical doubt.” (p. 209)

There is nothing remotely resembling all this documentation to substantiate the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover: this truckload does not prove that the executed women really were witches; McCormick hopes that his readers “do not believe that they were on the basis of the substantial body of historical evidence.” (p. 209)

“When it is put up against the case for the resurrection, in every important respect, the historical evidence for witchcraft at Salem is better than the historical argument for the resurrection.” (p. 209)

“The Gospel stories are only a few anecdotal, hearsay stories from passionate and religious adherents that were passed by word of mouth through an unknown number of people for decades before being written down. The resurrection story was repeated an unknown number of times by an unknown number of people until it was written down by the (unknown) author of Mark.” (p. 210)

McCormick concludes: “…you can’t consistently accept Jesus’ returning from the dead while rejecting the real magical powers of the Salem witches. Something has got to give.” (p. 210)

Let it be noted as well that none of the gospels describe the resurrection itself. That he had risen was inferred, because the tomb was empty—that story itself is dubious—and because angelic figures, in script invented by the gospel authors, said that it had happened. Could the case be any flimsier?

After Easter Sunday service last year, a friend reported that the pastor had read Paul’s report in I Corinthians 15:6 that the Risen Jesus “was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…” Isn’t that exhilarating—so he seemed to think: what more could you want? I asked him how Paul could have known that. Did Paul have documentation for the event, which would have been some twenty years in the past? Had hundreds of people been interviewed? Here too, McCormick’s warning comes to mind: “…lacking in any recorded attempt at soundly principled inquiry.” Since Paul was given to hallucinations, we can’t just take him at his word. Would it have been convincing if Paul had reported that 500 people had seen a faith healer restore an amputated leg?

Where did the gospel writers get their stories? We suspect, above all, from their imaginations, based so often on supposed hints about Jesus in the Old Testament.

The great enterprise of apologists is to deflect attention from our ignorance of the story sources, and defend each component of the Easter/Resurrection story as possible, plausible, e.g., the Empty Tomb and Joseph of Arimathea. Then gerrymander a perfect fit to ‘prove’ that the resurrection was real (just forget about all those other bodies that emerged from their tombs, just forget that the body of Jesus had nowhere to go but back in the ground).

Robert Price brilliantly skewers this feeble methodology:

“…if apologists like William Lane Craig can get an opponent as far as admitting that Joseph of Arimathea probably did have Jesus interred in his own tomb, and if the women probably did visit the tomb, and that the tomb was probably found to be empty, he can then press on to the conclusion that, Bingo! Jesus must have risen from the dead!

What they somehow do not see is that to argue thus is like arguing that the Emerald City of Oz must actually exist since, otherwise, where would the Yellow Brick Road lead?...We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true.” (p. 220)

This is a crucial point, knowing as we do now that discipline and documentation are required to write history: “We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true.”

Unless the author of the ancient narrative has revealed his sources: where did he get the story? Especially an episode like the Raising of Lazarus. John alone tells this story, and without knowing its provenance, it cannot be classified as history. And as is the case with countless other similar episodes, there are so many obvious markers of religious fantasy literature; the gospels are theological novels.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon in 1969—with the whole world following the saga on TV for days—President Nixon proclaimed that it was “greatest week in human history.” Billy Graham knew better, of course, and corrected the president: Holy Week—that great celebration of magical thinking—still held that distinction. Hence it is of no use whatever to advance scientific arguments against resurrection. It’s a miracle; there are no scientific arguments that matter.

So we urge the faithful to pick up their Bibles and see what’s really there—and what isn’t. If nothing else, verse-by-verse carefully pick through the four accounts of Easter morning at the Empty Tomb. Oh dear, how did it become such a jumble? We savor the rich irony that we don’t have to turn to science: the Bible itself provides ample evidence that “He is risen!” has been falsified.

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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