Was Jesus’ Resurrection Fake News?
A growing number of South Koreans are taking part in the bizarre practise of “fake funerals”. Citizens from across the social spectrum attend sites throughout the country to engage in a ritual performance of their own funerary rites. Practitioners allege that engaging in a fake death, and emerging from their symbolic demise, helps discharge the pent up frustration borne of life’s expectations and challenges. This symbolic re-enactment of new beginnings is like hitting a personal and emotional reset button that allows them to see the world as if for the first time. It is the mysterious, unknowable arena of death – an unimaginable darkness and the absence of all perception, that seems to attract them. Our western ears balk – but should they? Consider this.
Life after Death?
We often refer to dire circumstances as “matters of life and death,” because these terms speak profoundly about hope and hopelessness, beginning and end. The Roman playwright Cicero was exiled from Rome in 58 BCE for his crass joking, describing his exile as a ‘death’. He spoke about the ‘resuscitation’ of his dignity upon his return to Rome. The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel visualised the day when the people of Judah would be freed from Babylonian captivity. He envisioned a desolate valley with dried and decaying skeletons strewn all over the landscape. At God’s behest, Ezekiel prophesied over the bones and they were imbued with a Spirit of Life, covered with flesh, sinews and skin, and rose miraculously to their feet – Judah’s freedom was depicted as a resurrection (Ezek. 37:1-14). The ancient and contemporary worlds are not strangers to metaphorical resurrections. Life emerging from death is the acutest symbol of reversal, transformation, liberation and newness that human language can capture.
The authors of the earliest Christian texts were, however, attempting to convey a very different paradigm. Unlike Ezekiel or Cicero, they did not experience a transformation which they described using the metaphor of resurrection – they experienced a resurrection which they described using the metaphor of transformation. The greatest difficulty people have with believing this story of the resurrected Jesus is a scientific one; dead people are supposed to stay dead! As Richard Dawkins opines, “Presumably what happened to Jesus was what happens to all of us when we die. We decompose. Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk”. So, people seek alternative explanations for the empty tomb. Putting scepticism about miracles to one side, there remains a critical problem, which I explain thusly.
Was Jesus’ Resurrection Real?
I love watching legal dramas (especially “Law and Order”)! Such shows demonstrate the three components of establishing legal guilt: means, motive and opportunity. The means and opportunity to commit a crime can be arbitrary, and multiple variables determine their appropriateness. Motive, however, is far more concrete. People, unless they are psychotic (not wholly uncommon) have specific reasons for committing crimes – they kill for revenge or jealousy and steal for financial gain. If the ancient Jesus movement invented the resurrection of Jesus, it raises critical questions about their motives.
The Gospels outline the authors’ attempt to persuade readers that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. There was, however, simply no analogue in Jewish religious history or folklore that said anything about the Messiah dying and rising again, and so no expectation of such an event among first century Jews. As such, this event in and of itself would not have convinced anyone that Jesus was the Messiah. It may have illustrated something special about Jesus and even God’s work through him. That is, nonetheless, a very far cry from messianic credentials – after all, Elijah cheated death; both Lazarus and the widow of Nain’s son died and came back to life – even emperor Nero was allegedly resurrected, but none of them was hailed as Messiah! Thus, I ask again; what possible motive could these first century Jews have for cooking up the story of Jesus’ resurrection?
First things first; alternative ‘the-disciples-stole-the-body’ stories are equally weak on means and opportunity. Jesus’ followers were scared witless after Jesus was executed, and rightly so (Luke 23:30-31) and Jesus’ sepulchre was guarded by expertly trained soldiers. The disciples after conjuring up Herculean courage, and the sheer physical prowess to overpower the Roman guard, would have had to roll away the enormous stone, carrying Jesus’ body to some undisclosed and undiscoverable storage facility and keep up the fraud even when faced with persecution and violence towards themselves and loved ones! Yet, even if one could suspend disbelief long enough to accept the stolen body narrative, (or that the body was eaten by worms, or that despite being beaten nearly to death and impaled to a cross, Jesus was not actually dead – both suggested by New Testament scholars as non-supernatural alternatives to a resurrection), it still remains to explain what possible motivation could be served by claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. It quite simply makes no sense.
The Reality of Death
So, what exactly did the earliest Christ believers think this resurrection story could do for humanity so readily and powerfully that it became the Messiah’s story? Think for a moment – fake funerals; restoration narratives; ‘matters of life and death’; maybe the answer has been staring human generations in the face the whole time. Socrates wrote:
To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew it is the greatest of evils (Apology 29ab).
The author of Hebrews wrote:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Heb. 2:14-15).
Ana Drabot captures the thought of Sigmund Freud, thusly:
Death, ‘the great Unknown’, ‘the gravest of all misfortunes’, has also been called by Freud ‘the aim of all life’, something we should all be consciously aware of…
Since we haven’t gone through the experience of death and since death doesn’t exist in our unconscious, we can’t actually fear death itself. When we say we are afraid of death, according to Freud, we may fear something else – such as abandonment,… various unresolved conflicts, or otherwise fear of death may be the outcome of a sense of guilt. Yet Freud also specifies that fear of death ‘dominates us oftener than we know’ (Freud, Our Attitude Towards Death).
The Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, reawakened philosophy to its most basic puzzle – human beings live anticipating death; the anxiety of the mystery of death is the source of all reflection on consciousness and spirituality. All these authors are acknowledging something we probably know deep down, but rarely have need to vocalise – when life begins, so does human possibility; death, is the unequivocal end of possibility, so life and death are the core of all religious thought. Whilst we are alive, there is the chance to remedy any fault, rehabilitate any offender, overcome any challenge and heal any relationship. Even if putting something right seems impossible, (economic inequality, corporate greed, Brexit, sexism, slavery, forgiving an abuser, finding a missing person, rebuilding broken trusts, etc.), there is the unspoken recognition that if the parties involved are alive, it is possible that it can indeed be put right. If the missing person is still alive, they can be found. If the abusive father lives, he can be forgiven. If the vanguards live, they can protest injustice. Once they die, the possibility dies with them.
Consider how the Emmaus two summarised the hopes of Israel: “…the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24: 20-21). We were hoping– but death ended our hopes. Death is the place where all human fears congregate; death is the arena where our greatest confidence comes face to face with our greatest human limitations. Death is, as Paul suggests, the final enemy(1 Cor. 15:26).
Jesus Overcomes our Greatest Enemy
However, if death itself could be subdued, then possibility is reawakened and fear dissipates; and if death could be ‘defeated’ by a human agent – if there was a person who could peer behind the seemingly immovable curtain between life and death, and end death’s stranglehold on human capability, one who could recover the hope lost to fear; if someone could salvage human possibility and re-energise humankind’s opportunities to repair the broken parts of life; if there was one person who could so overwhelm death with new life and new creativity that it led to new possibilities and new hope, then, for a Jew, who else could that be but the Messiah?
The Apostle Paul gave special vent to this idea. He repeatedly refers in Rom. 4 to the divine promise to Abraham in Gen. 15:6; God promised the patriarch a son with his wife, Sarah, who would be his heir. However, their advanced ages meant that the embryological possibility was lost (Rom. 4:19). Abraham looked beyond the deadness of his own body and Sarah’s womb, to the “God who brings dead things to life and calls into being the non-existent” (Rom. 4:17). In other words, Isaac was not a child of flesh, born by the natural channels of biological possibility; he was a child of the promise, born by the resurrecting power of God, that rebirths possibility and hope (Gal. 4:28-29; cf. Rom.4:18). The birth of Isaac corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 4:25). New life, new hope, new creation and renewed possibility to repair what is broken, all come from trusting in the God that reanimates the dead. This short story is why I am a Christian.
So, when I say ‘Happy Easter’, I am not initially suggesting that believers have a relaxing bank holiday weekend, enjoy some chocolate eggs or have an encouraging worship experience on Easter morning – though I am surely saying all the above as well! Rather, I am beckoning my sisters and brothers to revel in the joy of newness; to dwell upon that moment when, like the Emmaus two, ‘our eyes were opened’, we recognised the Risen One (Luke 24:31) and were reawakened to the possibility of all that we might have thought lost because of death and despair. When I say happy Easter, I celebrate the rediscovery of a paradise lost, of hope restored and the rejuvenating energy of new life being unleashed on mankind in a way that can never be taken away again.
Written by Andy Boakye
Andy is married to Chi Boakye and father to Aaron (16) and Storm (14). He is a New Testament critic, Lecturer in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester and author of the book “Death and Life: Resurrection, Restoration and Rectification in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians’. He is also a reviewer for the Journal of the Study of New Testament.
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