Christianity: 10 Knockout Punches, Number 7

The embarrassingly bad resurrection tale

It’s rare for religions to come up with new ideas, and Christianity especially did a good job of borrowing, adapting, and recasting. One of the oldest ideas is that gods have a habit of coming alive again. In fact, early humans explained the arrival of spring in just this way:

“A vegetation deity is a nature deity whose disappearance and reappearance, or life, death and rebirth, embodies the growth cycle of plants. In nature worship, the deity can be a god or goddess with the ability to regenerate itself. A vegetation deity is often a fertility deity. The deity typically undergoes dismemberment, scattering, and reintegration, as narrated in a myth or reenacted by a religious ritual. The cyclical pattern is given theological significance on themes such as immortality, resurrection, and reincarnation.” (Wikipedia)

Resurrection is a good selling point—religious bureaucracies are always looking for those—so eventually this ability was claimed for other deities, well before it was grafted onto Christianity. Richard Carrier describes

“…examples of clearly pre-Christian dying-and-rising gods well known across the Roman Empire: the savior cult of the resurrected Zalmoxis (of Thracian origin) is clearly attested in Herodotus centuries before Christianity; the imperial cult of the resurrected Romulus is likewise attested in several pre-Christian authors; and the Egyptian savior cult of the resurrected Osiris is likewise undeniably ancient.”

“It is absurd to insist there is no parallel in concept here to what would later be claimed for Jesus. Jesus is clearly very much like Osiris: both die and both get raised in improved bodies and both end up living as lords in heaven (not on earth).” (pp. 171-172, On the Historicity of Jesus)

So, at the very core of its faith, Christianity is stuck with a motif that had been in circulation for a long time. “He is risen!” Well yes, but other religions have made the same claim for their gods. Christians might want to rethink having resurrection as the cornerstone of belief. Actually, liberal theologians for years have sought to metaphorize it, thus scuttling the triumphant message of the New Testament.

I once pointed out to a Christian that, a thousand years before Jesus, it seems that people had believed in the resurrection of Zalmoxis. “Well, that one didn’t happen, but ours did,” was his response. The lesson of comparative religion didn’t sink in; but is his own religion going to help? What if the magnificence—the believability—of Jesus’ resurrection is undermined by the New Testament itself? Our impulse might be to dispense with the resurrection by marshaling scientific arguments, but we can just skip that. “The Bible,” Randel Helms once said, “is a self-destructing artifact,” and he might have had the various resurrection texts in mind especially.

Who was the very first person to believe that Jesus had been resurrected? We can’t know for sure, but the apostle Paul was the first New Testament author who wrote about it, and he was emphatic about how he knew: “…the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)

By “revelation” he meant his hallucinations, which all varieties of religions position as “visions.” It’s not all that uncommon for healthy people, as well as those suffering from mental disorders, to hallucinate dead people talking to them. So Paul provides no basis whatever for believing in the resurrection. No matter how fervently, how passionately Paul believed that his visions of Jesus were the real thing, the stuff going on inside his head should be of little interest to anyone seeking to find out what actually happened.

Here are the links to the previous Knockout Punches: Number 1 Number 2 Number 3 Number 4 Number 5 Number 6

That leaves the gospels, written decades after Paul. Will they be of any help? Christians may be puzzled that anyone could even ask this question: the famous resurrection stories are right there for everyone to see. On close examination, however, there’s not much there, after all.

Mark certainly sets up the reader to expect a lot. In Mark’s script, Jesus predicts his resurrection three times, specifically that in three days he will rise again. The first time he does this, Peter took him aside and “began to rebuke him” (8:32); the second time, the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (9:32); the third time, James and John ask for favored treatment in the new kingdom: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (10:37)

It would seem that the disciples weren’t exactly tuned in. It’s even more startling that, after Jesus had been arrested, the disciples just dropped out of view. It’s as if, after his arrest, they gave up: “You’re on your own, Jesus.”

Robert Conner ranks as a major expert on the resurrection stories, and his analysis is appropriately scathing. Here are four of his especially noteworthy comments:

• “If Jesus taught emphatically that he’d be back among the living three days after his crucifixion, to say nothing of having raised others as proof that he was “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) why didn’t the disciples gather at Jesus’ tomb in expectation of his resurrection?”

• “Given the crucial role of Jesus’ resurrection, wouldn’t we expect plenty of witnesses—at least as many as witnessed the raising of Lazarus or the Transfiguration? Well then, we have bad news and even worse news. Let’s start with the worse news: according to the canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—no one actually sees Jesus rise from the dead. Cook on that for a minute. Despite the repeated predictions that he will rise from the dead after three days, (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34) not a single one of his apostles shows up to see it happen. Let’s hear that again, just to be sure: No. One. Sees. Jesus. Leave. The. Tomb.”

• “If you think that’s already about as bad as it can get, brace yourself. When some of the women who followed Jesus visited the tomb and discovered it empty, Mark, the earliest gospel, tells us, 'And they left the tomb running, for they were trembling and beside themselves, and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.' (Mark 16:8) And for whatever reason, that’s how the first gospel account left matters—with no prior belief, stated or implied, that his disciples expected to find Jesus had risen from the dead. Now clearly Matthew, Luke, and John couldn’t let the story end that way, but when they buffed it up theologically they just introduced even more incoherence, confusion, and contradiction.”

• “…the apostles remain the Twelve Stooges, thicker than two short planks, the dumbest yokels in all of yokeldom—they can’t understand what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’ (Mark 9:32) even after the Master calls them aside and Jesusplains it all.” (Mark 10:32)

One of Robert Conner’s books is Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. Also see his articles on the resurrection published here in June 2019. Number 1 Number 2 Number 3

When we look at the end of Mark’s gospel—how embarrassing is this—we find verses that Mark didn’t write (16:9-20), which got tacked on by person or persons unknown. It was not until many centuries later that this addition was found to be spurious; where did it come from? There’s almost no point in asking, because we don’t know where any of Mark’s gospel came from. This resurrection account inspires no confidence. In fact, it’s here that we find a bit of cult goofiness; the resurrected Jesus departs from any final lofty moral teaching:

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

How often do Christians test themselves on these capabilities? They ought to be relieved that this resurrection account is phony.

It is perhaps Matthew, however, who sabotages the resurrection more than anyone else. He indulged his talent for special effects. Mark tells us that three women arrived at the tomb—none of the disciples—and found the heavy stone already rolled away. Matthew says that two women went to the tomb, and got a spectacular show (28-2-4):

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

Guards? Mark, Luke, and John, in their resurrection stories, don’t mention guards, which is a minor embellishment compared to Matthew’s whopper of a tall tale (27:52-53): At the moment Jesus died, “…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.”

What an embarrassment this text had been for Christian apologists. “Oh, no, we don’t believe that really happened. Matthew got carried away.” Matthew’s many newly alive bodies walking around Jerusalem is a ghoulish special effect. Was he trying to merge Easter with Halloween? Why can’t we rule out the resurrection of Jesus as another special effect? We’re wandering around in stories that emerged in ancient speculation about gods, reaching all the way back to the vegetation deities.

And in Matthew 10:5-8, when Jesus sent his disciples to the preach throughout the land, these were his instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” “Raise the dead,” is not found in Mark or Luke’s version of this text. Resurrection, for Matthew, seems to have been routine superstition, on a par with casting out demons.

In Luke’s version of the Empty Tomb story, it was several women who showed up to check things out. They found no body in the tomb: “…suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground…” They returned to tell the disciples—again, why the hell didn’t the disciples go to the tomb?—and get this: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11)

That can be our primary takeaway on this story as well: an idle tale, not to be believed.

It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take long at all, to read the four versions of the Empty Tomb story and realize that the continual reworking of the idle tale created a mess. One of the more amusing details in John’s account is that, after Mary Magdalene had alerted Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” that the body was missing—and they rushed to the tomb to take a look—Jesus appeared to Mary, and she mistook him for the gardener!

We know that, just as Matthew had a talent for special effects, John excelled at explosive theological exaggeration. The long Jesus monologues, for example, missing from the other gospels, are clearly his own invention. And he created a resurrection story as a pretext for his most famous Jesus script, “I am the resurrection and the life.” How could the other gospel writers have missed the spectacular Lazarus event?

John’s Lazarus story is contrived. When Jesus was told that his friend Lazarus was sick, “…he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Later he changed his mind: “…then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’”

It turned out to be a voice-activated resurrection (“…he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’”), and we’re at a loss to explain why this would mean anything about the nature of God or salvation. A dead body came back to life…but at some point, obviously, Lazarus died again. This magic act was meant to impress followers of the early Jesus cult, but it also raises the awkward question of what happened to Jesus after he had come back to life.

The Ascension to Heaven story (Acts 1, for example) doesn’t work at all, outside the first century understanding of the Cosmos: heaven is not up there, for Jesus to go to. Unless Jesus continues to hover in the outer atmosphere somehow (or passed into orbit, as scholar A. N. Wilson pointed out), then his body remained on earth: he died again, and was buried again. That’s the trouble—the big trouble—the resurrection lands Christianity in. There is too much incoherence, and, frankly, too much silliness. It’s an embarrassingly bad tale.

Many observers have also pointed out another big defect in the story: Jesus appeared only to those in his circle of acquaintances. If Jesus wanted to make it really convincing and have full impact, why not knock on Pilate’s door on Easter morning: “Hi, it’s me again!” Roman chroniclers would have made it front page news.

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 by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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