I've got a couple little atheists buzzing around, and that's what one of them has told me. Well, he doesn’t exactly say ghost. That would be too concrete. Actually, my one atheist buddy says that Jesus’ appearance to Paul was a “subjective” appearance. And from that experience, he suggests, Paul went on to believe in and make a case that we are all destined for bodily resurrection.
So, what about that? Is a subjective experience a nice balance between a real resurrected body and no resurrection at all? Is a subjective experience the same as no resurrection? The vast majority of historical scholars believe that the tomb was in fact empty on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. How did it get that way? We know that the disciples had no opportunity nor inclination to steal Jesus’ body and Jesus’ enemies had no reason to do so. So what happened?
Because this atheist allows that Paul’s testimony is the most believable, let me work with this for a bit.
Anyone who has been following along for the past few days knows already about Paul’s 1st Corinthians 15:3-8 statement. There Paul gives a list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, ending with his own encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
As you read through this, keep in mind that from his experiences with the post resurrection Jesus, Paul develops a theology of God raising us all in bodily form on the day of judgement. He doesn’t say we’ll be raised spiritually but physically, albeit in a new resurrected body LIKE THAT OF JESUS. That’s fairly important to keep in mind since this most progressive of atheists says that Paul only saw an apparition.
Now, to what Paul describes. Remember that the tradition that Paul related comes from early, early on in the Christian movement. All scholars agree to this. In other words, it’s believable to even the most sceptical. In this creed:
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to Peter.
There is nothing about this appearance in the Gospels. However Paul mentions it in this incredibly early tradition stemming probably from the second month after Jesus’ death. From Galatians 1:18 we know that Paul spent about two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem three years after Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Paul would have gotten this account firsthand from Peter. As far as I know, even the most sceptical New Testament critics agree that Peter saw an appearance of Jesus alive from the dead.
As an aside, it’s important to remember that the only reason that the disciples allowed Paul, the Christian killer and torturer to “join the group” was that Paul could prove that he’d spent time with Jesus. How did he prove this? Because Paul knew, and was teaching to anyone who would listen the very same things about the kingdom of God that Jesus had taught His disciples prior to His crucifixion.
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to “the Twelve.”
This is the best-attested resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul himself had contact with members of this group. We also have independent stories of this appearance from the sources used by Luke in 24:36-42 and by John in 20:19-20. The most interesting feature of these accounts is the physical demonstrations of Jesus’ showing his wounds and eating with the disciples. My personal favourite is when Jesus called to the disciples from the beach after they were coming in from a night of fishing. Jesus has a fire going and some fish broiling and Peter says to John, “It’s the Lord.” He dives in and swims to shore. And then comes my favourite line. “None of us dared ask Him who He was for we knew that it was the Lord.” These were men who were still struggling with the reality of a bodily resurrection. This was NOT a subjective experience. Nor was it a hallucination. Neither experience is shared by a group of people. And second, these demonstrations show that this was the same Jesus who had been crucified. They demonstrate both CORPOREALITY and CONTINUITY of the resurrection body.
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to “five hundred brothers” at the same time.
Again, there is no mention of this in the Gospels. Yet it was part of one of the earliest traditions available. However, Paul himself had personal contact with these people. This is obvious because he knew that some had already died. As New Testament scholar of Cambridge University, C. H. Dodd states, “There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact that most of the 500 are still alive, unless Paul is saying, in effect, “The witnesses are still here if you want to question them.”
This is one of the most attractive things about Christianity for me. It is grounded in history. Facts and places and events can be researched and examined. This is simply not true of other religions. Christianity practically begs to be examined. That is why there is not the slightest chance that Paul would have said this if the event had not occurred and there were no witnesses to back him up. He placed far to much value and the trustworthiness of his testimony to subject it to potential destruction on the basis of giving false witness to the people he was trying to reach for Christ.
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to Jesus’ brother James:
As I’ve mentioned in several posts now, Jesus’ siblings thought He was crazy. Jesus was an embarrassment to the family. The wanted to hide Him away. So ask yourself. What would it take for you to believe that one of your siblings was God? I know that for me, it would take nothing less than an obvious death, an obvious burial and an obvious resurrection from the dead. A “subjective appearance” as my atheist suggests would not in any way be enough for me to volunteer for years of hardship, poverty and ultimately martyrdom. It was no different for Jesus’ siblings. Yet, post resurrection, we find them all part of the new Christian fellowship in the upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). The radical change in the character of James is confirmed by Josephus, the Jewish historian who writes that James was killed for his faith by the Sanhedrin. As well, 1 Corinthians 9:5 shows that Jesus’ other brothers had become active in the Church as well.
Again, what would it take for you to make this kind of change. A hallucination? A dream? An apparition? Or would a resurrection have to be proved to you beyond all doubt? I suggest that it was the latter that brought about the dramatic change in the character of the first disciples.
To see his brother crucified would have done nothing but confirm for James and his siblings that their brother Jesus really was a lunatic. The Jewish concept of a Messiah in no way allowed for His death as a criminal. Yet even sceptical New Testament critic Hans Grass admits that the conversion of James is one of the surest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to “all the apostles”:
This was probably more than the twelve and fewer that the several hundred mentioned earlier. Again, Paul would have gotten this information from the apostle’s personal accounts of their time with Jesus, before and after His crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Paul mentions Jesus appearing to him:“Last of all he appeared to me also.” This event is attested to over and over in Paul’s letters to the Churches he established. This event, like the appearances to the others disciples, forever changed Paul’s and their lives. This was no dreamlike wisp of smoke. Prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Paul had been a successful rabbi. He was at the height of his craft. Respected in his community, Paul was a man with power. He had everything religion can deliver from a worldly perspective. He hated the Christian movement. He hated it so much that he was willing to torture and kill in his effort to stop it. And then . . .?
Paul became the most powerful missionary Christianity has ever seen. For the sake of Jesus, who appeared to Paul and who taught Paul about the kingdom of God, this man gave up everything this world had to offer in order to preach Christ and Him crucified. Paul was beaten and whipped. He was shipwrecked three times and spent a day and a night in the open ocean. He was imprisoned several times and finally Paul was beheaded in A.D. 64.
Some say that Paul quit killing Christians because of guilt. However, if it was guilt that stopped Paul from killing Christians, then stopping the killing is all that would have happened. There was no need to go over to the other side in such a profound manner unless something profound happened to him. It did. Jesus, in bodily form appeared to Paul and it changed his life forever.
My atheist comrade will now tell me and anyone listening that there is no evidence for any of this. As I’ve said before, if eyewitness accounts are presented to him, this sceptic says eyewitness accounts aren’t reliable. If it’s accounts that are reported from those who heard it from eyewitnesses, then it’s hearsay and hearsay isn’t reliable. Well, like the saying goes, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” There’s nothing that can be done about that. However, while what we have won’t be good enough to change the mind of an atheist, it might be good enough for you.
. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Paul and Luke and their sources and is universally acknowledged by critics.
. The appearance to the Twelve is independently attested by Paul, Luke and John and their sources and is again not in dispute, even if many critics are sceptical of the physical demonstrations that attend this appearance.
. The appearance to the women is independently attested by Matthew and John and their sources and enjoys, as well, affirmation by the criterion of embarrassment.
. The appearance to the disciples in Galilee is independently attested by Mark, Matthew, and John and their sources.
. The appearances follow a pattern of Jerusalem > Galilee > Jerusalem, matching the festival pilgrimages of the disciples as they returned to Galilee following the Passover feast of Unleavened Bread and travelled again to Jerusalem two months later for Pentecost.
Personally, I can’t comprehend how anyone could claim that Paul would develop an understanding of bodily resurrection from a hallucination or some wispy subjective experience. On the other hand, if the appearances were physical and bodily in nature, then a psychological proposition is ridiculous.
Paul is emphatic that the appearance that he encountered was physical and not subjective. Paul does NOT teach the immortality of the soul, alone, but the resurrection of the body. Based on his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Paul makes a point of differentiating between the earthly body which is mortal and the resurrection body which is immortal; the earthly which is dishonourable and the resurrection body with is glorious; the weak and the powerful, the natural and the spiritual.
The word Paul uses for natural means unredeemed or earth oriented. The word he uses for spiritual means a person oriented toward things of the Spirit. All of the New Testament makes a conceptual distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus.
What’s the difference? A vision, though caused by God, was purely in the mind, while an appearance took place in time and space; it was external to the person seeing the appearance. Stephen had a vision of Jesus. By contrast, all the other appearances were “out there” and external to the people seeing Jesus. The appearances happened in real time and real space. Even Paul’s companions experienced Paul’s encounter with Jesus to varying degrees although it seems that Jesus Himself was hidden from them.
Every resurrection appearance related in the Gospels is a physical, bodily appearance. This is unanimous. If none of the appearances were physical then there is absolutely no explanation for why all the Gospel accounts declare them to have been physical. Why? Because physical, bodily appearances would be foolishness to Gentiles and Jews alike. Neither had any reason to believe in a natural physical resurrection but both, like our atheist here, would be willing to accept an apparition of some sort. Even Docetists did not affirm purely visionary resurrection appearances. Moreover the Gospel accounts do not meet the criteria of an anti-Docetic argument. For example, simply showing the wounds in His hand and side would not be good enough.
As stated in an earlier post, the only grounds for rejecting the physical resurrection of Jesus is philosophical / world-view, and not evidence based or historical in nature.