Jesus Reboot Fail: Resurrection Doesn’t Work

As we can figure out from the Bible itself

“A man ascending vertically from the Mount of Olives, by whatever means of miraculous propulsion, would pass into orbit.” So observed British scholar A. N. Wilson, gently ridiculing the story of Jesus’ departure into heaven described in Acts 1:9, “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As reported later in Acts 7:55-56, the about-to-be-martyred St. Stephen “…gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” So, an orbiting Jesus wasn’t part of these fantasies.

But the author of Acts had a problem: What to do with the newly alive body of Jesus? The only place to put him, to keep him alive forever—well, at least until he descended through the clouds to set up the His Kingdom—was “up there in heaven.” Of course, modern theologians who know the structure of the cosmos, understand the ascension of Jesus as a metaphor: No, it didn’t happen literally; it’s a symbol of the Son’s closeness to the Father. Whatever.

However, that doesn’t solve the problem that resurrection presents: What to do with the newly alive body of Jesus? If it didn’t ascend…well, what? More on this later.

Clearly, on some level, resurrection is a cool idea. It had enormous appeal in the ancient world: the resurrection of vegetation gods was celebrated in the spring, but in the fall they died again. The idea caught on:

“Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshippers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation of how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea.” (p. 168, Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus)

Indeed, Christianity adopted the idea and ran with it enthusiastically to sell its product, eternal life. But resurrection is as fatally flawed as ascension. Yes, of course, there’s the what-to-do-with-the body problem, but resurrection is a break with reality. Again, A. N. Wilson has called it correctly, that the gospel resurrection tale is “palpably and obviously untrue—bodies do not, in this kosmos, resurrect themselves.” A point that Michael Shermer has driven home:

“The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find.”

So yes, we want to see the extraordinary evidence. This Shermer quote is found at the opening of John Loftus’ essay, “The Resurrection of Jesus Never Took Place,” in his anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

Is his essay an exhaustive catalogue of the scientific reasons to refute resurrection? No: we don’t have to go there at all. Loftus offers a tutorial on just how inadequate the New Testament accounts are; these were obviously aimed at the first century target market of uncritical thinkers. But when we scrutinize the gospel accounts critically, and bring the apostle Paul into the mix as well, we can see—on the basis of the Bible alone—that resurrection doesn’t work. It’s a phony claim.

One huge clue that the gospels can’t be taken seriously is provided by Matthew 27:52-53, the story of many dead people coming alive in their tombs when Jesus died, then walking around Jerusalem on Easter morning—never to be heard from again, as Loftus points out. These two verses tell us a lot about Matthew’s mindset, and Loftus asks the question any thinking person would: “Why is there no record of these zombies apart from what we find in Matthew’s gospel?” (p. 493) And why is the resurrection of Jesus any more credible?

The blunt truth, Loftus notes, is that “…the anonymous gospel writers were spreading propaganda rather than producing the results of a disinterested investigation, despite what they claim (i.e., Luke 1;1-4).” (p. 492)

“We have nothing written by the Romans about Jesus, the content of his preaching, why he was killed, or what they thought about claims that he had been resurrected. We have no corroborating objective evidence for this extraordinary miraculous claim.” (p. 492)

“All we have is ancient second-third-fourth hand testimonial evidence as told to us by four authors in four Gospels, plus Paul…everything we’re told comes from someone who was not an eyewitness. This is hearsay evidence as filtered through decades of oral story-telling and re-telling that presumably went from Aramaic to Greek, then compiled together in the four gospels…” (pp. 493-494)

In addition to the gospel resurrection accounts recited from pulpits on Easter morning, a text from the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-8 is also a favorite:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Most of the folks in the pews probably don’t grasp that Paul was the first person ever to write about Jesus. Thus this text in I Corinthians deserves careful scrutiny, and Loftus provides a line-by-line analysis in a major chunk of his essay, pp. 498-511, and he shows why almost everything in this text is problematic. Here are some highlights:

“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”

We wonder if Paul wrote this knowing full well that the first readers of his letter had no way to check this out. But we do. Just as Paul hallucinated the dead Jesus (= his visions), did he imagine (= hallucinate) items that are missing from the old scriptures? Loftus: “I have found nothing in the Old Testament that can legitimately be considered a specific prophecy about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. It’s just not there in the original contexts.” (p. 500)

Paul was not alone in making this bogus claim. Loftus points out that the author of Luke’s gospel, in his Emmaus Road story, puts Jesus himself up to it: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all of the Scriptures concerning himself.” This is simply false; Luke was borrowing from Paul’s playbook.

“that he was raised on the third day”

What’s missing here are the details, namely those supplied by the gospel accounts of Easter morning. Paul didn’t know these stories—probably because they hadn’t been invented yet—and he might not have been impressed with the claim that a tomb was empty. Loftus draws attention to a few verses later in I Corinthians 15 in which Paul ridicules the idea that a dead body comes back to life: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (v. 50). Paul was big on spiritual bodies—not revived flesh and blood that strolled out of a tomb.

Paul wanted nothing to do with bodies that had been rotting for a few days. Because Paul added spiritual body to the mix, Christians have been in a muddle, trying to figure out, based on guesswork, what happened on Easter morning.

“Who can really make any sense of this,” Loftus asks. “No wonder there is such a debate over it. Evangelicals are sure as sure can be that the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily one despite this debate, and despite the massive philosophical objections to a bodily resurrection itself.” (p. 503)

“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time”

That cinches it, right? Actually, we’d like to know where Paul got this information—and, of course, are we to trust a man who hallucinated conversations with a dead man? Loftus asks if Paul’s readers should “…have believed Paul just because he said so? Should we?” (p. 507) Maybe Paul’s claim here is on a par with Matthew’s zombie story, i.e., just another feature of fantasy literature. Loftus reminds us that we need “sufficient objective corroborating evidence.” (p. 507)

Suppose your neighbor bragged about a healing service at church: “The place was packed, more than 500 people, and we all saw the pastor regrow a man’s amputated leg—wow, the power of Jesus!” Our first impulse ought to be, “Okay, where’s the sufficient objective corroborating evidence?” I’d want to see all the cell phone videos, wouldn’t you?

Alas, there were no cell phones on that first Easter morning. Loftus provides a substantial paragraph (pp. 511-512) showing the multiple discrepancies in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb. “One would think that the gospel testimonies should be reasonable and consistent if we are to believe a resurrection miracle took place. But they aren’t, by a long shot.” (p. 512) He quotes Bishop John Shelby Spong: “When we embrace all of their versions in our minds at one time, we discover that all we have in the Bible about Easter is an inconsistent, contradictory, mutually exclusive witness.” (pp. 512-513) Once again, fantasy literature fails to deliver.

What We’re Up Against

Recalling Richard Carrier’s observation that resurrected gods who guaranteed salvation were “a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose,” it’s hardly a surprise that the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult thrived, despite the many flaws in its propaganda literature. In our world today it is represented by a colossal bureaucracy—with a shrine on almost every street corner, or so it seems; just within a mile or two of my home in Manhattan there must be dozens of churches. And this bureaucracy, fractured though it may be, has millions of employees worldwide to tend to the worldwide flock of 2.4 billion people.

Imagine if there were similar institutions devoted to maintaining belief in the flat earth, or the ways in which the stars guide human destinies. To be sure astrology thrives, but cannot hope to match the Christian superstition about an ancient man who came back to life—and that belief in this event is a key to eternal life. You can’t beat that gimmick. Religions have been trading in it forever, but Christianity managed to capitalize on it far more than others.

And naturally, with so much at stake, defense of the resurrection is big business; scholars with high emotional investment in Jesus work tirelessly to put the best possible spin on the New Testament—which only baffles serious thinkers outside religious academia. Robert Conner sums it up: “The Evangelical Resurrection Industrial Complex (ERIC) has churned out scores of scholarly tomes, hundreds of erudite disquisitions in professional journals, dissertations and commentaries, as well as debates and conferences beyond numbering, as the tsunami of dishonest verbiage shows no signs of receding.” (6 September 2017, DC Blog)

Which is all for naught. When we take a close look at the ancient texts produced to promote the gimmick, we can see that it’s a trick.

“It would seem if our eternal destiny were at stake,” Loftus bluntly states, “god should’ve made the evidence rock solid for those of us who hear about it centuries later. But there isn’t a god so he couldn’t do this, because it’s not the case that Jesus arose from the dead. What we have is a nearly airtight case against this faith-based miraculous claim. Jesus died on the cross. He did not bodily arise from the grave. His body has rotted away.” (pp. 517-518)

Thus the what-to-do-with-the-body problem has been solved: the body never came out of the ground. This is the kind of honesty that the New Testament couldn’t manage.

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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