This originally appeared in the Southern Accent. Shane studies theology at Southern Adventist University.
The intention is not to offend but to provoke thought and discussion. My hope is that this campus can be a safe place for tough questions and the sharing of ideas.
I remember the first time I said and believed: Jesus is dead. No trio of words could have felt more foreign on my tongue.
My friend and I were discussing our growing skepticism. We realized that the tales of a talking snake, a virgin birth and a man living three days inside a fish were beyond our capacity to believe. But doubt didn’t come upon us like a cloud; it was more like a sunrise.
I had already given up the notion that the Bible was infallible. To claim one book as the inerrant revelation of God is, to me, definitively gullible. So I started to study the Bible with the same tools of critical examination that I would use in any other area.
When we study a figure of history we don’t blindly assume that everything written about him or her is true. If so you’d have to believe in the virgin birth of Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar as well. One important step in finding the truth about a historical figure is to date your sources and trust the earlier ones more than the later ones.
Paul is our earliest source, then Mark, then Matthew, then Luke/Acts, then John. When you read these sources independently, assuming you didn’t know what was in later ones, you see a steady growth in the fantastic nature of the Jesus-story.
According to Paul, Jesus was not raised with a natural body but a “spiritual” one. He contrasts Adam who was made from dirt to Christ who, when raised, was a life-giving spirit. Paul is explicit that the resurrection of Jesus was not of “flesh and blood,” because flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom. Paul believed Jesus was alive because he had a visionary experience with Christ’s “life-giving spirit.” He never mentions an empty tomb or a resuscitated corpse (1 Corinthians 15:35-50).
Second is Mark, who is the first to introduce the empty tomb story. Yet even within Mark’s gospel Jesus is never actually seen after his death (Mark 16:1-8). Many Bibles add an appearance section to Mark’s gospel but the footnotes will probably tell you that this is almost certainly not part of the original work. In Matthew’s version Jesus is finally seen face to face. Jesus’ resurrection is obviously considered to be physical but the emphasis is on sightings rather than interactions with the resurrected Christ (Matthew 28:1-9).
In Luke, Jesus is said to have broken bread and eaten with the disciples. He even directly denies being a spirit, something that Paul had claimed decades earlier. But Luke is now confronted with a problem. When Jesus was considered to have existed in a non-physical, form then there was no issue with Him appearing and disappearing at will. Luke, who is the first to stress the bodily nature of the resurrection, is also the first to mention an ascension. If Jesus is a physical person He could only get to heaven by flight (Luke 24:1-51). John, the last to write about Jesus, gives us the most intriguing story because Thomas says he will not believe until he physically touches Christ, so Jesus shows up to prove himself (John 20:1-29). I’ve often said that if Thomas, who knew Jesus personally, is allowed to withhold judgment until he sees Jesus for himself then surely I can do the same.
We can see a clear trajectory stretching over decades of time from Paul to John. The meaning of the phrase “Jesus is alive,” changed dramatically over that period. Each time the story was retold the resurrection became more tangible and physical which leads me to believe that the actual event the disciples experienced was incredibly intangible and non-physical, perhaps even hallucinatory.
For many of you, the notion that Jesus’ body decayed like everyone else’s would make Jesus insignificant and His message useless. That’s as foolish as saying the civil rights movement ended when Martin Luther King, Jr. died or America became worthless once George Washington was dead.
My complaint against many professed Christians is that you have so deified your leader that you often ignore what He actually taught. You act as though worshipping Him, praying to Him and telling people about Him is the sum of your duty as His follower. He never asked for any of those things! He asked you not to judge, He asked you to give all you have for the poor, He asked you to love your enemies. I often see Christianity doing the opposite of all of these.
When I accepted for myself the fact that Jesus is dead I became even more motivated to serve Him. His message became even more captivating because He gave His life to the promotion of peace and inclusivity and I hope to do the same. To insist that Jesus is alive in heaven creates a culture of passivity where we wait for Him to come and fix this world, but to follow a dead Jesus means to be an active agent for change and to go and better the world as He would have done.
The assertion that we are the body of Christ is something I take very seriously. After all, if Jesus is watching I can only imagine that He would rather I follow His teachings and doubt His resurrection than believe in His resurrection and ignore His teachings.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1439