Jesus’s resurrection: If he wasn’t raised, we’re boned.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 April 2024

Of Christianity’s two biggest holidays, Christmas is the easier one for pagans to swallow. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene was born. That, they won’t debate. There are a few cranks who think Jesus’s life is entirely mythological, start to finish; but for the most part everyone agrees he was born. May not believe he was miraculously born, but certainly they agree he was born.

Easter’s way harder. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene rose from the dead. And no, he didn’t just wake up in a tomb after a two-day coma following a brutal flogging and crucifixion. Wasn’t a spectral event either, where his ghost went visiting his loved ones to tell them everything’s all right; he’s on a higher plane now; in time they’ll join him. Nor was it a “spiritual” event, where people had visions or mass hallucinations of him, or missed him so hard they psyched themselves into believing they saw him.

Christians state Jesus is alive. In a body. A human body. An extraordinary body; apparently his new body can do things our current bodies can’t. But alive in a way people recognize as fully alive. Not some walking-dead zombie, nor some phantom. Jesus physically interacted with his students, family, and followers, for nearly a month and a half before physically going to heaven.

That, pagans struggle with. ’Cause they don’t believe in resurrection. Resuscitation, sure; CPR can keep a heart going till it can beat on its own, or doctors can revive frozen people. Returning from the dead happens all the time. But permanently? In a new body? Which he took with him to heaven? They’re not buying it. They’re more likely to believe in the Easter Bunny.

But that’s the deal we Christians proclaim on Easter: Christ is risen indeed.

It’s not the central belief of Christianity; God’s kingdom is. But if Jesus didn’t literally come back from the dead on the morning of 5 April 33, it means there’s no such kingdom, and Jesus is never coming back to set it up. And nobody’s coming back from death. There’s no eternal life; at best an eternal afterlife, which ain’t life. There’s no hope for the lost. The Sadducees were right. Christianity’s a sham. There’s no point in any of us being Christians.

No I’m not being hyperbolic. This is precisely what the apostles taught.

1 Corinthians 15.12-19 KWL
12 If it’s preached Christ is risen from the dead,
how can some of you say resurrection of the dead isn’t true?
13 If resurrection of the dead isn’t true, not even Christ is risen.
14 If Christ isn’t risen, our message is worthless. Your faith is worthless.
15 Turns out we’re bearing false witness about God: We testified about God that he raised Christ!
Whom, if it’s true the dead aren’t raised, he didn’t raise.
16 If the dead aren’t raised, Christ isn’t risen either.
17 If Christ isn’t risen, your faith has no foundation.
You’re still in your sins, 18 and those who “sleep in Christ” are gone.
19 If hope in Christ only exists in this life, we’re the most pathetic of all people.

No resurrection, no kingdom, no Christianity. Period.

Resurrection in the Old Testament.

Originally the Hebrew religion had no afterlife.

Yeah, this fact’s hard to imagine for a lot of Christians: We tend to assume the ancient Hebrews believed the same as we. We forget the LORD didn’t tell ’em everything up front; just the stuff they needed to know. He let the rest remain a mystery for the time being. But it’s true: When they died, the Hebrews assumed they went into the grave, and maybe their spirits lived on in an afterlife, but they didn’t know. God never told ’em one way or the other.

Christians regularly try to insert the idea of an afterlife into the ancient Hebrews’ belief system. We take the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל/šeól, “grave,” and claim the Hebrews envisioned it as an entire underworld. But while this’d be true of ancient Egyptians and Greeks, it’s not of ancient Hebrews. Some of them might’ve borrowed pagan ideas of an afterlife, but read your bible: God told them nothing.

This is why the scriptures have such statements as these:

Ecclesiastes 3.18-22 KWL
18 I meditated about the condition of Adam’s children—
how God purifies them by showing them what animals they are.
19 Dumb luck to Adam’s children; dumb luck to an animal.
Dumb luck to one and all.
Like death. This dies, that dies.
Spirits in one and all; Adam with no advantage over animals. It’s all vapor.
20 They all go to one place:
All come from the dust, all return to dust.
21 Who knows whether Adam’s children’s spirits go up to heaven,
whereas animal spirits go down to the underworld?
22 I see nothing good in this. Enjoy your work, Adam: That’s your lot in life.
Who can show him the future?

Christians read Ecclesiastes and figure the author was some pessimistic, hopeless crank. But he was simply reflecting what he knew (or more precisely, what he didn’t know) about the afterlife. God hadn’t yet told anyone what would happen. So, he concluded, why speculate? Live your life. Don’t worry about it.

Yes, God finally did clue people in. The first suggestion we get of resurrection is in Ezekiel, when the LORD gave his prophet a vision of dry bones to represent the seemly irreversible destruction of the nation of Israel. But God doesn’t consider anything irreversible.

Ezekiel 37.1-14 KWL
1 The LORD’s hand came upon me. He brought me out by the LORD’s Spirit.
2 He put me in a valley full of bones. He made me walk round and round them:
“Look how very many, all over the surface of the valley! Look how very dry!”
3 He told me, “Son of Adam, can these bones live?”
I said, “Master LORD, only you know.”
4 He told me, “Prophesy over these bones. Tell these dry bones: Listen to the LORD’s word.”
5 My Master LORD tells these bones, “Look! I put a spirit in you. Live.
6 I put sinews on you. I grow muscle on you. I encase you in skin.
I give you the Spirit. Live. Know that I’m the LORD.”
7 I prophesied as instructed.
At the sound of my prophecy, look: Shaking, and bone came together with bone.
8 I saw—look!—sinews and flesh grew on them. Skin encased them.
But there was no Spirit in them.
9 God told me, “Prophesy to the Spirit. Prophesy, son of Adam!
Tell the Spirit this: My Master LORD says this. Spirit, come from the four winds!
Blow into these who were killed. They will live.”
10 I prophesied as instructed. The Spirit came into them.
They live! They stand on their feet—a very, very great army.
11 God told me, “Son of Adam, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
Look, they say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is dead, we’re cut off.’
12 So prophesy! Tell them this: My Master LORD says this.
Look, I’m opening your tombs. I’m taking you out of your tombs, my people.
I bring you to the very ground of Israel.
13 You’ll know I’m the LORD when I open your tombs.
When I bring you out of your tombs, my people, 14 I’ll put my Spirit in you. Live.
I’ll put you on the ground, and you’ll know I’m the LORD.
I said it; I’ll do it,” promises the LORD.

You likely know of this passage from the occasional preacher who quotes it out of context to claim it’s about how God can revive our lives. Seems the Pharisees did a little bit of that too. Yeah, they recognized this prophecy is properly about God restoring their nation after it’d been scattered all over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. But they also believed this vision told ’em how the End Times are gonna work: At some point, the LORD’s gonna open up every last grave, pull the dry bones up, and literally bring humanity back to life again.

It’s a big interpretative stretch. The only reason we don’t wholly reject the idea of an End Times resurrection derived from it… is ’cause Jesus also accepted this idea. He defended the idea of resurrection against naysayers. Mt 20.23-32 He didn’t only believe in his own resurrection.

Resurrection is not a pagan idea.

Nowadays the average person has no idea what the ancients believed. Most of the time we assume the ancients were morons. After all, we figure (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) our parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, are morons. People back then didn’t have science and technology. Didn’t have educations and commonsense. They were superstitious fools who’d believe all sorts of things. So of course they’d believe in resurrection.

Thing is, outside the Jews, the ancients believed in no such thing.

Yeah, there were stories about how gods died and came back to life. Like Hadád, one of the Baals, who died; whereupon his wife Anat sliced him up and seeded him, and this somehow restored him to life. Like Osiris, whose wife Isis did much the same thing. (And we can debate whether the Egyptians stole the story from the Canaanites, or vice-versa.) There are stories of Mithras and Balder dying and rising; there’s the myth where Herakles was freed from hades and promoted to godhood. But none of these myths told of regular humans coming back to life. And if so, it was only temporary; these folks always died again.

When the Egyptians, Norse, Mayans, and other pagan religions talked about living again, they always meant living again in the netherworld. The Norse imagined their netherworld on another planet; the Greeks on some garden island in the Atlantic or underground caves at Cumae; the Egyptians on the far side of the earth.

When the Hindus spoke of living again, they meant reincarnation: The universe granted you another life as a whole other person. Wasn’t the same life, continued. Buddhists taught they could escape the reincarnation cycle altogether, and become one with the universe.

The Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and many American Indians believed the afterlife was a spiritual existence. Pure spirit, no bodies. The bodies were dead and gone, and who’d want to live in a decaying, rotting carcass?

And some religions believed, same as the ancient Hebrews, same as nontheists today, in no afterlife at all. When you died, you were gone. Ceased to be.

I know; people like to point out Zoroastrians believe in resurrection. And I point right back: They didn’t adopt this idea till the 9th century. Likely they got it from Islam—which itself started in the 7th century, and got its belief in resurrection from us Christians. This idea any of the ancients believed in, or accepted, the idea of resurrection? That’s the myth.

Not even all Jews believed in resurrection. The Sadducees still believed once you died, you were gone. Mk 12.18 The Pharisees taught resurrection, and Paul took advantage of this Pharisee/Sadducee disagreement to throw the Judean senate into disorder. Ac 26.2-8

Jesus taught resurrection, same as Pharisees. Mk 12.18-27 But where he, and us Christians, differ from Pharisees, is the Pharisees only believed resurrection took place at the very end of history, on the last day, when God judges the world. Christians believe some people get resurrected that day. More accurately we believe there are three instances of resurrection:

  1. Jesus himself, far in advance of everyone else—“the first of a great harvest of all who died.” 1Co 15.20
  2. At Jesus’s second coming, he’s gonna resurrect all the Christians. 1Th 4.16-17, Rv 20.4-5
  3. On Judgment Day, everybody else gets raised—and judged. Rv 20.13

Some Christians believe in even further instances. I’ll get to them.

Jesus’s resurrection.

Despite the many times Jesus warned his students he was gonna die (but later rise again), this idea hadn’t really sunk into them. Yeah, they believed in resurrection. But they’d grown up Pharisee, and expected he’d rise as Pharisees taught: At the end of the world. On the last day.

Just like Martha said:

John 11.23-27 KWL
23 Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha tells Jesus, “I know he’ll rise again in the resurrection,
on the last day.”
25 Jesus tells her, I’m the resurrection.
And life: Believers in me might die,
but later they’ll live.
26 Everybody who lives and believes in me:
They can never die in the age to come.
Do you believe this?”
27 Martha told Jesus, “Yes Master.
I’ve believed you’re Messiah, God’s Son, who came into the world.”

Nobody—not Martha, not the apostles, not Jesus’s own family, not anyone—expected any human being to rise from the dead before the End. When Jesus said “Your brother will rise again,” Martha immediately assumed Jesus meant Judgment Day—not within the hour. Anything else simply wasn’t in their worldview. And anytime Jesus talked about raising the dead, or rising again, his students either figured Jesus was teaching about the End, or speaking in parables again.

Faced with the raw reality of Jesus’s gory death, the students couldn’t imagine anybody recovering from that. Jesus was absolutely dead. Between the blood loss from flogging, the asphyxiation from crucifixion, getting stabbed in the heart by the Roman solder looking for proof of death, and Joseph and Nicodemus wrapping him in 33 kilos of spices, Jesus was so dead.

A popular theory is the cold tomb somehow woke Jesus up. Somehow a man barely alive managed to struggle out of his straitjacket-like wrappings, shove the huge rock off the entrance, crawl past a group of sleepy temple cops, and escape… only to pitifully die later. It’s kinda stupid on the face of it. The widespread theory Jesus’s students swiped his corpse Mt 28.11-15 is far more plausible—and it’s a pretty stupid theory too.

But these theories aren’t consistent with any of the other recorded events which followed: More than 500 people saw Jesus alive. 1Co 15.6

The first reports came back from the women who went to the tomb to embalm Jesus further. They met an angel—or two; their stories aren’t straight—who told them Jesus is alive. Then at some point they saw him. Mary of Magdala definitely saw him. Quite naturally Jesus’s Eleven didn’t believe them—and to be fair, who would? It’s not that these weren’t trustworthy women; it’s that they just saw Jesus die horribly and gruesomely, and if anyone told ’em Jesus was still alive after that, they couldn’t buy it. Jesus’s student Thomas gets a lot of crap from many preachers for doubting it, but Thomas had sense, and held out till he personally saw Jesus. Jn 20.24-29 Most other Christians just harbor doubts, and pretend to believe. That is, till we encounter Jesus ourselves—or till a crisis in our lives forces us to embrace our doubts, quit pretending, and quit Christianity.

In contrast the 500 who saw Jesus stopped doubting. James, Jesus’s brother, who’d never followed him before, followed him the rest of his life, and went to his death proclaiming him. The rest of Jesus’s family became devout Christians. The students, who originally fled when Jesus was arrested, likewise went to their deaths—sometimes deaths as horrible as Jesus’s—insisting he’s alive and they saw him personally. And from time to time they stated they still saw him.

If Jesus wasn’t really raised, his apostles had to be seriously delusional. Because every last one of them embraced nasty punishments and deaths. Every last one of them tried (and succeeded!) to perform miracles in Jesus’s name—cure the sick, throw out demons, and even try to debate educated Romans on Jesus’s philosophical merits. Rather than individually chase their own separate delusions, as actual schizophrenics would, the apostles worked in concert, created a consistent narrative about Jesus, created harmonious teachings about salvation and God’s kingdom, and founded a religion which didn’t fall by the wayside like so many of the gnostic groups which filled the Roman Empire. Delusional people should’ve instead come up with a religion which makes no sense, whose followers ignore its many outrageous inconsistencies and just believe really hard; or a tight and rigid cult which harshly penalizes anyone who bucks the trend. In comparison, Christianity has so few inconsistencies, some of us even claim it has none; and while we do have cultists among us, they’re not our mainstream, no matter how hard they try to be.

Fact is, Christianity simply doesn’t work without a resurrected Christ. It’s the belief by which the rest stands or falls. Either Jesus is alive, is our Master and God, has conquered sin and death, and his new life verifies everything he taught. Or it’s all rubbish, wishful thinking, and dumb luck.

I admit I’m biased: I can’t conceive of a world where two billion individual schizophrenic delusions, based on the egomaniacal ravings of a madman, fit together so well. That’s gotta be the dumbest of all dumb luck ever. Even if it were dumb luck, you’d think some kind of evil genius would have to work behind the scenes to manipulate everything neatly into place. But let’s not go down that trail. It doesn’t get us anywhere good.

Christians who don’t believe in resurrection.

Yeah, despite everything I just wrote, there actually are Christians who don’t believe Jesus was resurrected. They come in two sorts:

  1. UNBELIEVERS. Those who believe Jesus’s resurrection is pure fiction from start to finish, and think the real point of Christianity is to be big fans of Jesus and his teachings. As for resurrection and God’s kingdom: Wishful thinking. Not for them.
  2. IMMATERIALISTS. Those who believe Jesus’s resurrection is “spiritual.” By which they mean he didn’t physically rise from death. Instead Jesus’s ghost appears to people.

For the most part unbelievers are actually pagans who think they’re Christian. ’Cause if you think Jesus isn’t real, it makes no sense to follow him. You’d be just as ridiculous as the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—who are trying to be ridiculous, so even they make more sense.

But I run into immaterialists all the time. They’re kinda everywhere. They figure when we die, we go to heaven, get ghostly bodies, and that’s resurrection.

When Paul and Sosthenes tried to describe resurrection, I gotta admit their explanation is a bit vague and mysterious in parts.

1 Corinthians 15.35-50 KWL
35 Some will object, “How are the dead raised up?
What sort of body do they come in?”
36 You’re being dense. When you sow seed,
it’s not brought to life unless it dies.
37 And you’re not sowing the body to come:
You’re sowing a simple kernel,
like grain or some other plant.
38 God grows it into the body he wants;
each seed its own body.
39 Not every species comes out the same.
There’s the human species, animal species,
fishes, birds,
40 heavenly bodies, earthly bodies—
but heavenly bodies are reckoned differently than earthly bodies.
41 The sun’s deemed different than the moon and stars;
one star’s deemed different from another.
42 Same with the resurrection of the dead.
It’s sown rotten, raised fresh.
43 Sown unwanted, raised in honor.
It’s sown in weakness, raised in power.
44 Sown in an animal body, raised in a spiritual body.
(There’s an animal body and a spiritual body.)
45 This is why it’s written, “The first human, Adam, became a living animal.” Ge 2.7
The final Adam is made alive in the Spirit.
46 But not spiritual first:
Animal, then spiritual.
47 The first human was made from earth, animal.
The second human is the Lord, from heaven.
48 Those made from dirt are dirty.
Those made from heaven are heavenly.
49 Just as we have the image of dirty humans,
we’ll also wear the image of heavenly humans.
50 Fellow Christians, I say flesh and blood aren’t able to inherit God’s kingdom.
Nor can decay inherit the indestructible.

How immaterialists spin this passage, is to point out our resurrected bodies aren’t flesh and blood—’cause “flesh and blood aren’t able to inherit God’s kingdom.” 1Co 15.50 So they’re neither flesh nor blood… nor animal, vegetable, nor mineral; nor even matter. I point out the apostles were trying to make a distinction between earthly and heavenly matter, but immaterialists insist there’s no matter involved: We become “a spiritual body,” 1Co 15.44 pure spirit. Like I said, ghosts.

They figure we only live in these bodies in heaven. They’re not meant for earth. Jesus using his spiritual body to visit earth was a fluke. And no, he’s not coming back to earth to set up his kingdom here; the “kingdom of heaven” will only exist in heaven. The righteous go there when we die, and we get immediately “resurrected” into these heavenly bodies. We stay in heaven forever, and Jesus reigns over us. Therefore nobody literally rises from the grave. Not even Jesus did. (So where’d his physical body go? Well, they’re not sure. Somewhere.)

This purely-spiritual “resurrection” idea is based on ancient Greek philosophy. To the ancient Greeks, material things are temporary, decaying, and icky. The human body is just a cage for the immortal soul. Once you die, you finally bust out of your prison, become pure spirit, and leave this old, decaying, trashed world behind.

Once the Greeks became Christian, they brought this idea with ’em. It’s leaked into a lot of churches. It’s become a big part of the End of Days view of the End. But technically it’s heresy. ’Cause it means Jesus isn’t really alive: He’s a ghost.

Whereas Jesus made it plain he’s not a ghost; Lk 24.37-43 ghosts can’t be touched, have bones, or eat fish and honey. Can’t even eat from the trees of life in New Jerusalem. Since when do ghosts have a digestive system?

True, Jesus seems to have the ability to vanish and reappear. Lk 24.25, 36 People point to this and claim it’s ghostlike. But it’s actually not consistent with western ghost stories: Ghosts don’t teleport. If they vanish, they’re still there, but invisible. They’re fixed to a location, like living people; if they travel they have to walk or somehow take a motor vehicle. And vanishing here, reappearing there, isn’t something only Jesus did: Philip of Jerusalem did it too, Ac 8.39-40 as did Habakkuk in the apocrypha. As did arguably Ezekiel, Daniel, John, and every prophet who was “caught up by the Spirit” and taken to wherever the Spirit wanted ’em to see.

Part of the reason people claim Jesus is only “spiritually” alive is because they find a dead Jesus far more convenient. A living Jesus makes Christianity a little too real. Implies he might want us to change our current lives, instead of putting off all our lifestyle changes till the afterlife. Much easier for us to deal with a religion where all the serious stuff happens in some imaginary spiritual never-neverland. This way it never interferes with our material reality. This way, Jesus is far far away, ruling heaven; not here, instructing, empowering, or correcting us.

Yeah, heresy leads us into warped behaviors. It’s why we need to correct it whenever we see it. Jesus is alive. And once he returns, we Christians will be resurrected to life, living the same way he is. I don’t know exactly what that’ll be like. Neither did the apostles, which is why Paul and Sosthenes were so vague in 1 Corinthians 15: All they—and we—know is Jesus was resurrected, and therefore we’ll be resurrected too. Christ is proof our eternal life is real.