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19 March 2018

Let’s suppose Jesus is dead.

Relax; he’s not. This is just an intellectual exercise.

Six years ago I was asked to write on “the resurrection hoax” for a synchroblog. The idea was this: Suppose Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Suppose the story was entirely fabricated by the apostles. Hence hundreds of people didn’t actually see Jesus alive. 1Co 15.6 Hence he hasn’t personally appeared to thousands of people in the present day; these are all delusions. Hence despite evidence to the contrary, 40 days after his death, thousands became Christian, Ac 2.41 thousands more in the years thereafter, Christianity spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond, and now a third of the planet is Christian. But it’s entirely based on mythology and wishful thinking.

Well… for contrast, a billion people claim adherence to Islam, and we Christians figure Muhammed ibn Abdullah al-Mecca was wrong about God. But then again Muhammed didn’t claim any big miracles for himself. (His followers did, later.) He only claimed to hear from angels. I don’t have any problem with that idea; I just doubt these angels were on the level.

Anyway. “The resurrection hoax” is also an intellectual exercise Christian apologists like to use to imagine what the world should look like if Jesus isn’t alive. “If Jesus wasn’t raised, that shouldn’t’ve happened. And that shouldn’t’ve taken place. And this would be impossible. And all these miracles would be delusions.” And so on. Basically we make up a parallel world without Jesus in it, then argue, “We don’t live in that world, so Jesus must be alive.”

D’you recognize the gigantic problem with that argument? Right; it’s what we call a strawman: Build a dummy out of straw, fight it, defeat it easily, then say, “Look how well I can defend myself!” Um… it wasn’t even attacking you, because it can’t, because it’s straw. Imaginary worlds prove, at most, that we lack imagination. ’Cause an antichrist can imagine a world which looks exactly like this one, wherein Jesus is dead. It’s the world they imagine they’re in now.

Still, apologists like to use it to make smaller challenges: “If Jesus isn’t alive, why weren’t the apostles immediately and successfully challenged by people who could refute their resurrection stories?” (ANTICHRIST: “Duh; they were, but when they wrote the bible, they didn’t include any of those challenges.”) “If Jesus isn’t alive, how could the apostles do all those miracles?” (ANTICHRIST: “Hey, I’m not convinced they did any of those miracles.”) I could go on, but as you can tell, I’ve tried this tactic myself, and antichrists have answers for all our posits. We won’t agree with their answers—and that’s why we’re Christian. But don’t presume antichrists haven’t come up with all sorts of reasons to reject Christ and Christianity—ones which work just fine for them.

Christians who do think Jesus is dead.

I don’t think much of “the resurrection hoax” idea as a way to argue people into Christianity. But I do find it useful when we look at the way certain Christians behave. And I use it to point out the fact there are a lot of Christians who straight-up believe Jesus wasn’t raised.

To them, Jesus’s resurrection is pure mythology. Didn’t literally happen. Instead they figure Jesus rose spiritually: He’s not alive, but he’s as good as alive. When he appears to Christians, he’s not doing it in a human body; he’s some sort of super-specter who can mimic having a tangible body, and make appearances from the Great Beyond as necessary.

So say an archeological team dug up Jesus’s corpse tomorrow. Their response would be, “Yeah, but he’s always been alive in our hearts.” The rest of Christendom would be freaking out, but they’d watch with sympathetic, but condescending, amusement: “Those silly literalists.

Thing is, if Jesus really were pure spirit, Christianity should actually spread faster and wider. The view of the afterlife where we die and become spirit fit in perfectly with the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and works really well with popular culture today. Christians wouldn’t have to stretch anyone’s credulity by insisting upon resurrection.

Because resurrection weirds people out! They’re used to thinking of matter as decaying and bad, but spirit as noble and good. All the gnostics and heretics who tried to teach a spirit-only Christian afterlife should’vebeen embraced by the church, not driven away. St. Augustine wouldn’t have had to ditch his neo-Platonism. And Christians would’ve ditched a few of our ickier traditions, like keeping the body parts of dead saints.

In practice, these Christians who don’t believe in resurrection tend to be the Christians who are “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” Their Christianity is out there, in the ether, in the future, rather than down here, in the now, on the planet. Despite what Jesus teaches, they focus on the idea of God’s kingdom in the future, in the clouds, in heaven. Not in the way we behave towards one another. Not in loving our neighbors.

Imagine a Christendom where everybody thinks that way. Where we have mystics instead of social activists, or philosophers instead of ministers. Where Christians cloister themselves instead of interacting with the lost and the needy. Won’t be hard, ’cause there are whole branches of Christianity which already act like that.

True, there’d be fewer End Times enthusiasts or Prosperity Gospel preachers. (Though I’m sure some would exist. Some looney ideas are just too appealing.) But neither will there be as much concern for the sick, the poor, the needy, and the hungry. For they’ll have pie in the sky when they die, by and by.

There are practical reasons for Jesus’s resurrection, y’see. God didn’t create matter as an afterthought, or as a temporary existence to prepare us for a non-material, spiritual existence. He created the cosmos and called it good. He doesn’t mean for us to trash the planet, and only look towards heaven. He intends to fix it, and live in it himself in the person of Jesus. Only sin makes it evil, and sin is temporary. Sin is not welded to matter, as Jesus demonstrated by his very humanity.

Jesus’s humanity isn’t something he tossed away as soon as he had a chance—the instant he died, he was freed from his soul cage, and could be the unlimited God that he was before his incarnation. No: When Jesus intentionally limited himself to become human, Pp 2.5-8 this was a permanent change. One of the reasons people prefer to think of Jesus’s resurrection as spiritual is because we find it hard to identify with the idea of voluntarily, permanently giving up divine power. A spirit-only Jesus would be, like the Father, an omnipotent spirit; his self-limitation was only temporary, and he could go back to basking in his mighty power. But that’s not at all what we have in the scriptures. We have a Jesus who is still human, still one of us. Resurrection means that too.

Other Christian responses.

Back to our exercise. If presented with proof Jesus is still dead, we wouldn’t see the Christianists freak out much either. They didn’t join Christianity because they believe Jesus is alive anyway. It was done out of pure pragmatism, the philosophy that if it works for you, it’s all good. They don’t believe, but they like the results. Christianity (or a form of it, anyway) supports their worldview. It makes ’em feel spiritual, which is nice. Provides stability and order to society and family life—especially its rules. Instead of a personal relationship with Jesus, they’ve been focusing on the rules and the theology, and Jesus is “alive” in that sense to them. But if anyone ever proved him dead, they’d figure the rules are the important thing anyway.

I’ll bring up the Christians who’ll simply go into denial. Say somebody found Jesus’s bones: “Well they’re wrong. I don’t care what they show me. It’s a devilish scam to destroy our faith. I know better.” And that’ll be that. They believe as they believe, and no one can tell ’em different. (In fact some of ’em really hate “the resurrection hoax” exercise, and think it’s kinda blasphemous to even speculate about such things. Bugs ’em.)

Dark Christians would largely fit into the denial camp, but there are a number of ’em who are only remaining Christian because they fear hell. And as we’ve seen all the time with kids who abandon Christianity in school: Once they get the idea there’s nothing to fear, they’ll flee Christianity. Sometimes they join other religions; sometimes they become militant atheists.

And sometimes they choose to believe in nothing, and drink and fight and screw ’cause nothing means anything—if Jesus is dead, guess it’s time to party. Back in my high school youth group, that right there was the most popular answer to “the resurrection hoax” exercise: If Jesus isn’t alive, the kids figured, we’re going with pure hedonism. And that’s precisely what they did two years later. Their parent’s hadn’t raised ’em to be good and selfless and to love God; they’d only taught ’em fear. Too many fearful Christians out there, who fear Jesus instead of loving him, are in this very same boat. Won’t take much at all to lead ’em astray.

My answer.

Me, I’m one of those Christians who believe in, and pursue, an experiential relationship with Jesus. If anyone ever presented me with convincing evidence Jesus is dead, our reaction would be, Who the hell has been talking to me all this time?

See, we’ve been working and living in Jesus’s resurrection power. We’ve had conversations with the Holy Spirit and done things in his might. We’ve seen miracles and signs and wonders. We’ve seen lives transformed on the basis of these things: We took the teachings of Jesus, applied them, and saw God’s kingdom appear among us.

So if you presented us proof there is no resurrection power—that Jesus has been dead all along—how’d we do any of these things? We didn’t psyche ourselves into believing them. We saw stuff. The “proof” would have to be a hoax. Not because we’re being closed-minded about it, but because it totally doesn’t fit our experiences.

Or it’d imply God was lying to us all along, which is an even more bothersome problem. If Jesus is dead, but our fruit as Christians has been goodness and growth, obviously God’s going along with our false idea, and is okay with letting us live in deception. Indeed, he’s been actively deceiving us in order to achieve his goals. If that idea doesn’t bug you, you gotta be spiritually dead. It inserts all sorts of doubt into our relationship with God: Are we sure we even know him? We thought he was trying to save us, and have us live in a kingdom with Jesus reigning over us. But if Jesus is dead, that’s not happening. So what’s his real plan? If God has been lying to us all this time, is he even good?

We wind up with the apostles’ statement—

1 Corinthians 15.17-19 KWL
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.

—’cause we’re so screwed.

This is why I teach Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not that everything in our glass clockwork must fit perfectly. But there’s an awful lot riding on this one particular point. Pretty much all of God’s plans for humanity after Jesus conquered sin with his death, are dependent upon a living Messiah. Can God do it without him? Of course; God can do whatever he wants. But God doesn’t wanna do it another way.

So there’s what “the resurrection hoax” exercise provokes in me. Try it out with the Christians you know and see how they respond. It’ll be interesting. Sometimes creepy. And good to look at how far your faith goes.