We need to subject the resurrection stories of the New Testament to the same critical analysis as we did the crucifixion. So let us examine Paul’s writings and the gospels in an attempt to discover what the event we call Easter really was.
When the earliest New Testament writer, Paul, wrote his letters, he gave no narrative details of Jesus’ resurrection. He wrote that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:4). All the details we commonly associate with the resurrection – the tomb, the stone being rolled away, women coming to the tomb at dawn, a messenger or messengers announcing the resurrection, and the empty tomb –developed post-Paul.
Paul included a list of “witnesses” who were, he said, the ones who “saw,” however, he never tells us what they saw. He says Jesus “appeared” after the resurrection to: Cephas, to the Twelve, and then to the 500 brethren at once. Then he appeared to James, and then to the apostles and finally Paul claims that he also “saw” the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15:4-8). Since Paul’s post-resurrection experience with Jesus happened sometime between one year after the crucifixion at the earliest and six years at the latest, a physically-resuscitated body could not have appeared to Paul. Therefore, we must assume that Paul’s concept of the resurrection was not the resuscitation of a deceased body. Paul’s experience of the resurrected Christ must have been some sort of vision.
It was by the resurrection, Paul wrote, that Jesus became the Son of God (“…was declared to be Son of God… by resurrection from the dead” – Romans 1: 3-4). By the end of the second century, this concept was declared heretical, so according to the early church fathers, Paul was a heretic.
And, according to Paul, Jesus did not rise; God raised him and we too will be similarly raised:
• “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:24);
• “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life… we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4-5);
• “God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power” (I Corinthians 6:14);
• “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us” (II Corinthians 4:14).
In I Corinthians Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:14-17).
Paul thought that we must die physically in order to take on a resurrected body; the physical body will become a resurrected spiritual body (“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” – I Corinthians 15:44 and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” – I Corinthians 15:50). So Paul did not believe in resuscitation, but he did believe in the resurrection of a spiritual body.
Out of 665 verses in Mark only eight verses are about the resurrection. Why? Most likely because the story of the resurrection as we know it today had not developed by the time Mark penned his gospel.
After the sabbath, early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. They wondered how they would remove the heavy stone from the entrance to the tomb, but they discovered that it was already rolled back. As they en-tered the tomb, they were frightened when a young man, dressed in a white robe, was found sitting on the right side. The young man told them not to be alarmed; he knew they were looking for Jesus’ crucified body. He told them that Jesus was not there; he had been raised. As evidence, he showed them the place where he had been laid. Then he instructed them to “tell his disciples and Peter” (almost always Peter is mentioned first, but not in this instance) that he was going to Galilee and they would see him there, just as he had told them. The women fled from the tomb in terror and amazement. They were so afraid that they did not obey the young man’s orders to tell the disciples or anyone else (Mark 16:1-8). In Mark’s resurrection story, there is no angel, only a young man, no one guarding the tomb, and no burial clothes left behind.
As Mark gospel ends, there is no mention that the disciples believed Jesus had or would be raised from the dead. They must have still been nearby because the young man told the women at the burial sight to tell the disciples to return to Galilee so Jesus could meet them there (notice: he did not tell the women to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead). Instead, they fled and told no one. So how did the disciples learn about the resurrection?
It is clear to biblical scholars that Mark’s gospel ends at 16:8 and that both the shorter ending (Mark 16:9-10) an account of an appearance to Magdalene, and the longer ending (Mark 16:14-20), which tells about an appearance “to the eleven” were added many years later.
By the time Matthew’s version of the first Easter was written a decade later, the Romans had destroyed both Jerusalem and the temple. Many Jews had fled into the Greek-speaking world, while the Orthodox Jews who remained in Israel were decidedly skeptical of the new Jewish Christians. Evidently Matthew thought Mark’s gospel had left many unanswered questions, so as a Jewish Christian, he was eager to defend Christian claims against Jewish attack. He accomplished that by heightening the miraculous. Matthew borrowed the cave, the guards, and the stone from Hebrew scriptures about Joshua and wrote them into his narrative of the resurrection.
Matthew wrote that on the first day of the week at dawn, as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, an angel descended from heaven. The angel’s appearance was accompanied by another earthquake (the first supposedly happened during the crucifixion). When the angel rolled the stone away, the guards became so frightened, they fainted (“shook and became like dead men”). The angel told the women not to be afraid. He (Matthew refers to the angel with masculine pronouns) knew they were looking for Jesus, so he told them that Jesus had been raised, just as he had predicted. After he showed the place where Jesus’ body had been laid, he ordered them to go quickly to tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead and would meet them in Galilee. So the women, who were filled with fear and with great joy, left the tomb to obey the angel’s instructions. Suddenly Jesus appeared before them and greeted them. The women approached him, “took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” Then Jesus told them not to be frightened and to go tell his brothers to return to Galilee where they would see him.
Matthew also wrote that the guards went into the city to report to the chief priests what had happened. The priests and elders gave the soldiers a large sum of money and instructed them to say that Jesus’ disciples came during the night and stole his body while they were asleep. They also promised the soldiers that if the governor found out what happened, they would keep the soldiers out of trouble. So they took the money and did as the priests and elders ordered.
Since Judas was no longer with them, the eleven remaining disciples went to Galilee. When they encountered Jesus, “they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Jesus commissioned the disciples by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:1-20)
By the time Luke was written around 90 CE, the early Christian movement had been thrown out of the Jewish synagogues, so Luke radically modified the resurrection story to accommodate this change. Luke wrote primarily for Gentiles and several stories are found only in his gospel.
At dawn the next day, “they” (evidently the women since they brought the spices they had prepared) took anointing spices to the tomb. There they found the stone that covered the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away (nothing had been said about a stone being rolled in front of the tomb in 23:50-56). When “they” entered the tomb, nothing was there. While they were still in astonishment, two men dressed in dazzling clothes stood beside them. Terrified, the women bowed with their faces to the ground, but the men asked why they were looking “for the living among the dead?” They told them he “has risen.” The two men reminded them that Jesus had told them back in Galilee that the Son of Man would be handed over to “sinners and be crucified” and would rise on “the third day.” Then the women remembered Jesus’ words, so they went to tell the eleven disciples and others. Then Luke names the women who reported to the “apostles”: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James (since Jesus’ mother was reportedly with Mary Magdalene at the cross, I would surmise that this person is also Mary, Jesus’ mother), and others. The disciples, as dense as always, considered the women’s report “an idle tale” (i.e. they did not believe them). Peter, however, must have believed enough to go to the tomb to see for himself. When he entered the tomb, he saw the linen cloths (these were not mentioned earlier when the women entered the tomb). Peter reportedly was amazed, but he merely went home.
Next, Luke added the Emmaus road story that no other gospel writer recorded. Later that same day, two of the disciples were traveling to Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem (according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, the exact location of Emmaus is uncertain). As they were discussing the things that had happened, Jesus appeared, but they did not recognize him (why not? Did he look different? The inability of these persons to recognize Jesus is typical of reactions to Jesus in his post-resurrection appearances). When Jesus asked them what they were discussing, Cleopas said he must be a stranger if he did not know what had happened in Jerusalem. Playing dumb, Jesus asked, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth” and they called him a prophet. They accused the chief priests and leaders for Jesus’ death. They had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel, that is, they had hoped he was the military messiah who would defeat the Romans. They continued by telling him about the women’s experience at the tomb and claimed that some of the group went to the tomb to verify what the women had reported (Luke earlier only reported that Peter went to examine the tomb; then he went home). Jesus accused the two disciples of being foolish for not believing what the prophets had declared about the Messiah – particularly “that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory.” Then he continued, beginning with Moses, to interpret to them the things in the scriptures “about himself.” When they arrived in Emmaus, Jesus agreed to stay with them. During the evening meal when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them, they suddenly recognized him. Then he vanished. The men returned to Jerusalem to tell “the eleven and their companions” that “the Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Next they reported what had happened on the road and how they recognized him “in the breaking of bread.”
Then Luke told a third resurrection story in which Jesus appeared to all the disciples. While they were talking to the two who had encountered Jesus on the Emmaus road, Jesus appeared. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus showed them his hands and feet to convince them that he was not a ghost. Then he asked for something to eat, so they offered him “a piece of broiled fish.”
Next Luke wrote that Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses to “all the nations,” before he departed from them. Jesus reminded them that he had told them that everything written about him in the law, the prophets, and the psalms had to be fulfilled (this statement makes me believe that Jesus attempted to fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah) and he shared some of those scriptures to prove his point. He said it was written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. He also said “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” However, he wants them to stay in the city until they have “been clothed with power from on high” (no instruction to return to Galilee in Luke).
Then they followed him to Bethany where Jesus blessed them. While he was blessing them, he ascended into heaven. Astonished, the disciples worshipped Jesus and joyfully returned to Jerusalem. They went to the temple “continually… blessing God.” (Luke 24:1-53)
John’s version expands the Jesus legend even further.
Early Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb (presumably to anoint his body with burial oils, which would have been the job for a widow) and found the stone had been removed from the tomb’s opening. She immediately ran to tell “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” that someone had taken Jesus’ body. So Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb – the other disciple arrived first. When he looked inside the tomb, he saw the linen wrappings, but did not enter. When Peter arrived, he went into the tomb and also saw the wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head, which was lying in a separate place. Then the other disciple entered and saw what Peter had seen “and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Then they returned home.
Mary, however, remained outside the tomb weeping. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two angels dressed in white where Jesus’ body had been – one at the head, one at the foot. They said (both simultaneously?), “Woman, why are you weeping?” She told them that someone had taken Jesus’ body and no one knew where it was. Suddenly, Jesus was standing in front of her, but she did not recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. He asked why she was crying and asked who she was looking for. She asked if he had removed the body to tell her where it was and she would take him away. Finally when Jesus said, “Mary,” she recognized him and said, “Rabbouni,” which means teacher. Jesus would not allow her to touch him because he had not ascended to God. He told her to go to tell his “brothers” that he was ascending to his “Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene did as she was instructed and told the disciples that she had “seen the Lord.”
That evening while the disciples were meeting in a locked room for fear of “the Jews,” Jesus appeared to them and showed them his hands and side. Then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” and they received the Holy Spirit. He told them if they forgave sins, they would be forgiven and if they did not forgive the sins of anyone, they would remain unforgiven (did he actually give the often times dense disciples such power?).
Thomas was not present for this appearance, so when the others told him about it, he refused to believe unless he saw “the mark of the nails in his hands, and put (his) finger in the mark of the nails and (his) hand in his side.”
A week later, the disciples met again with Thomas present this time. Jesus appeared again and allowed Thomas to examine his nail scarred hands and the puncture in his side. He said, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus asked if he believed because he saw? He blessed those who have not seen, but believed. (John 20:1-31)
Did you notice how the details changed? Mark’s young man became Matthew’s dazzling angel; Luke expanded Matthew’s angel to two angels, and John modified the two angels to Jesus. And was the risen Jesus seen on the first day of the week, as we have always been told? Mark and Luke said no; Matthew, yes, and John said not at first, but Mary Magdalene did see him later. Isn’t it clear what happened? Over time, the resurrection became more and more miraculous. The Jewish Messiah named Jesus has now become the Christ.
Was Easter on the third day after the crucifixion or after three days? If “on the third day” is a literal measure of time the resurrection would be on Sunday. However, if the time reference is “after three days,” that would place it on Monday. While the two phrases sound similar, they result in contradictory conclusions. According to Matthew, on the day after the crucifixion, the Chief Priests and Pharisees appeared before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again’” (Matthew 27:63). According to Mark, as Jesus and the disciples were traveling to Jerusalem, he told them that he would be mocked and spit upon and they would flog him and kill him, but “after three days” he would rise again (Mark 10:34). Matthew reported that Jesus told the disciples that he had to “go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed,” but “on the third day” he would be raised (Matthew 16:21). A chapter later in Matthew, Jesus told the disciples that “the Son of Man” was going to be killed, but “on the third day” he would be raised (Matthew 17:22). During the trip to Jerusalem, Matthew, like Mark, wrote that Jesus told the disciples that he would be handed over to the Gentiles, be mocked, flogged, and crucified, but “on the third day” he would be raised (Matthew 20:19). Luke uses the “on the third day” phrase on seven instances: Luke 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7, and 24:46; Acts 10:40, and 27:19. As was mentioned earlier, Paul also wrote that Jesus was raised “on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:4). So the consensus is more towards “on the third day.”
If we take the Easter gospel narratives literally, the actual the time between the burial of Jesus and the resurrection is no more than 36 hours. That is only a day and a half, not three days. The burial occurred shortly before sundown on Friday, which would be about 6:00 pm. From 6:00 pm on Friday until midnight is six hours; from Friday midnight to midnight Saturday is twenty-four hours; from midnight Saturday until dawn on Sunday or 6:00 am is six more hours. When those hours are added together we can get 36, a day and a half. So “three days” appears to be a kind of shorthand description, not a specific measure of time.
Mark had the messenger tell the women that the disciples would see Jesus in Galilee, but Galilee is a seven-to-ten-day journey from Jerusalem. Luke stretched the appearance stories to forty days, culminating with the ascension. John had resurrection appearance stories occur in Jerusalem over a period of eight days, but in the epilogue to his gospel, the resurrection appearances cover a period of months. Therefore, once again, the phrase “three days” must be only a symbol and was never intended to be a literal measure of time. So the time between the crucifixion and the Easter experience needs to be expanded.
Mark wrote that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb. Matthew said Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were the only ones present. Luke claimed that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and some other women went. John said that Mary Magdalene went there alone. Paul did not mention anyone going to the tomb, but he clearly considered women inferior, so it is not likely he would have written anything about a woman or several women being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb.
Mark wrote that the three women found an empty tomb and a young man dressed in white garments pro-claimed the resurrection. Luke wrote that his group of women saw two men clothed in dazzling apparel. Matthew contends the two women witnessed “an angel of the Lord” who caused an earthquake, put the armed guard to sleep, roll back the stone, and gave the resurrection message. On Mary Magdalene’s first visit, John does not mention her encountering anyone, but on her second visit he said she was confronted by two angels, although they did not speak. Then Jesus, who she mistook for the gardener, appeared to her, but she did not recognize him. It was Jesus who proclaimed to Mary Magdalene the resurrection message.
It is surprising that the New Testament writers do not agree on whether the disciples were in Galilee or Jerusalem on Easter. Let us look at the evidence. All Paul tells us is that Peter was the first to see and then “the Twelve.” He does not mention a specific location.
The gospels are divided between the primacy of Galilee and Jerusalem in the resurrection story. Mark does not relate a resurrection appearance by Jesus to anyone. He has the messenger tell the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was going to Galilee and they would see him there as he had promised. The last few words in this quotation refer back to an earlier text in Mark in which Jesus predicted that the disciples would scatter, but “after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee.” Mark clearly believed the disciples would encounter the resurrected Jesus in Galilee.
Matthew also says it was in Galilee that the raised Jesus appeared to the disciples. His is the first biblical account of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples anywhere. Due to the death of Judas, Matthew calls them “the Eleven.” For Matthew, the risen Christ appears not as a physically-resuscitated body, but as a transformed and glorified one; Jesus is clearly a heavenly being because he comes out of the clouds to a mountain top. Matthew says that Jesus had directed the disciples to this particular mountain, though there is no indication as to when he gave this direction. Then in that Galilean setting, Jesus supposedly gave the great commission. This was the first time that the resurrected Jesus spoke to anyone. Even though he used Mark as his model, Matthew wrote that the women saw the raised Jesus at the tomb. That would be a witness to the Jerusalem tradition. Remember, Mark said that they did not actually see the risen Jesus at the tomb. Luke agrees with Mark and says the women did not see him.
Luke, however, counters this Galilean tradition by asserting that the appearance of the resurrected Christ occurred only in and around Jerusalem. In Luke, the women do not see Jesus at the tomb, but Cleopas and an unnamed traveling companion experience him in the breaking of bread in the village of Emmaus. Luke later tells us that the raised Christ has also appeared to Peter, presumably in Jerusalem. Finally, according to Luke, Jesus appears to all the disciples on the afternoon of Easter Day, bids them peace, identifies himself, asks for food to eat, opens their minds to understand the scriptures, directs them to remain in Jerusalem until they were “empowered” with the Holy Spirit and then Jesus departs.
As for John’s gospel, Jesus first appeared to Mary at the tomb, then to the disciples that evening in Jerusalem in a locked and barred room without Thomas being present. One week later, still in Jerusalem, John claimed that Jesus appeared again to the disciples, but this time Thomas was present. That is where the gospel of John ends. However, the epilogue to John relates another appearance to the disciples, but this time it is much later and it is by the Sea of Galilee, and with this narrative the epilogue ends.
It should be noted that all the stories about Jesus sightings, the visions, the aspects of his bodily physicality, the feeling of his flesh and the touching of his wounds – the resuscitated Jesus – are associated with Jerusalem.
That is the biblical data and it reveals significant differences concerning where the disciples were, physically, when Easter dawned on them. All of these accounts cannot be literally true, nor can they be lumped together to make a unified story.
Paul, while listing those who witnessed the resurrection, included himself even though his conversion was no earlier than a year after the crucifixion and could have been as much as six years. For Paul, the resurrection clearly was not a historical event.
It may be a surprise to discover that Mark never mentioned the post-resurrection Jesus appearing to any-one. His gospel ends with the messenger directing the women to tell the disciples that they were to go to Galilee where they would see the risen Jesus. Mark writes that “the women fled in fear and said nothing to anyone.” If the disciples returned to Galilee to see the resurrected Jesus, the journey would have taken seven to ten days, which means there could not have been a post-resurrection appearance for a week or more. Perhaps even more important, when Jesus appears to the disciples he evidently had already ascended because he came out of the sky. This sounds more like a vision than a physically resurrected body!
The most unrealistic thing in Matthew’s resurrection narrative is a second earthquake occurring as a male angel descended from heaven. Matthew added a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus. As the women were following the angel’s instructions to run and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen and he would meet them, as he had promised, in Galilee, Jesus was suddenly right in front of them and greeted them.
Luke’s version is even more unrealistic than Mark’s or Matthew’s. Jesus’ appearances are much more spirit-oriented, more like an apparition. A flesh and blood person cannot materialize and dematerialize, but a spiritual body could. Luke agrees with Mark; the women did not see Jesus early on Easter morning, but the resurrected Jesus materializes and dematerializes at will and is unrecognizable. Cleopas and his traveling companion on the Emmaus road could not imagine that the true messiah could be dead, so in their minds Jesus was no longer the messiah. When Jesus appeared to them, they did not recognize him even after he explained the scriptures to them. When they invited this stranger to share their evening meal, Jesus, the guest, presided over that evening meal (highly unusual). After he gave the blessing, he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. According to Luke, it was at that moment that they recognized him and “he vanished out of their sight.” Returning to Jerusalem, these travelers related their experience to the disciples using this phrase, “He was known to us in the breaking of the bread.” Also, the disciples informed them that the risen Jesus had “appeared to Peter,” but no details were given. Luke asserted that Jesus appeared on a number of occasions over a period of forty days, but his appearances ceased with the ascension. Maybe Luke meant that the resurrected Jesus, the Christ, is with us, whether we realize it or not, and there are moments when we recognize his presence.
In John, the risen Christ appeared only to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning and would not allow her to touch him because he had “not yet ascended to the father.” By Easter evening, the ascension had occurred and he could be touched. When Jesus entered the presence of the disciples in his transfigured state, he was able to walk through a locked door and breathed into them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then disappeared and did not return until “after eight days,” which would have been the following Sunday. On that occasion, Thomas was present and, after feeling Jesus’ wounds, acknowledged him as “my Lord and my God.” At that point John’s gospel ends (the epilogue was added later).
Resuscitation means a dead person comes back to life; they can resume their previous existence.
Resurrection means a new kind of existence. There is no doubt that God is capable of anything and everything, but in my opinion, Easter was resurrection, not resuscitation. Many fundamentalists believe if there was no literal bodily resuscitation, then the Christian faith collapses.
The Gnostics totally rejected any idea of the resurrection of the body; they argued that only the soul was resurrected and the body left behind – the resurrection of a spiritual body like Paul wrote about. In this in-stance, I agree with the Gnostics; I do not believe in a bodily resurrection for Jesus or for anyone. I think the soul continues its spiritual journey after death, but not the body.
In Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper, Father Agostino Leyre was rethinking what he had discovered. One of his conclusions was, “Christ did not resurrect as a mortal body. He resurrected as light, showing us the path of our own transmutation when the final hour comes.” I like that idea! Christ led the way and we can follow at the time of our own death.
In the longer of the two alternate endings to Mark, which was added much later, Jesus appeared to the eleven during a meal and scolded them for their lack of faith. They apparently had not believed those who had encountered the post-resurrection Jesus. Then he commissioned them to “go into all the world and pro-claim the good news.” After the commissioning, Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:14-19).
Since the Mark alternate ending, referred to in the previous paragraph, was not written by Mark, Luke is the only gospel writer to write a narrative of Jesus’ ascension. The post-resurrection Jesus led the eleven disciples to Bethany. As he was blessing them, he ascended into heaven (“was carried up into heaven”). After they worshipped Jesus, they joyfully returned to Jerusalem where they visited the temple frequently and blessed God. Could it be that Luke got his ideas from Elijah? We are told that Elijah ascended bodily into heaven via a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses (2 Kings 2:11). Luke presented Jesus as the new and greater Elijah. Since Elijah ascended into the sky, so did Jesus (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11). Luke also said that Jesus’ disciples, like Elisha’s, witnessed the ascension so they were eligible to receive the spirit of their master. So did Jesus physically ascend or is that a midrash retelling of the Elijah story from Hebrew scriptures? I believe it is more likely the second.
There are a few verses in the John’s gospel that might be interpreted as references to the Ascension:
• Jesus reportedly said, “No one has ascended into heaven but…the Son of man” (John 3:13). However, the pre-Easter Jesus would not have made such a statement.
• John has Jesus ask, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was be-fore?” (John 6:62) Once again, it is doubtful that the pre-resurrection Jesus would not have asked such a question.
• Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). This statement, in my opinion, was John’s invention, not what Jesus actually said.
Whether the ascension was three days or three weeks, I believe if Jesus “ascended into heaven” he did so in the same sense that it is possible for all of us to be in God’s presence after death. Heaven is not up; we do not know where it is; so, “ascended” is not the appropriate word, in my opinion.
The Jews were familiar with sacrificing an animal on an altar to obtain forgiveness. Therefore when the early Christians, really still Jews, were confronted with Jesus’ death, God’s non-interference and Jesus’ seeming willingness to die, they latched onto the idea of sacrifice.
Nowhere does Jesus connect forgiveness of sin with his death. I agree with Leslie Weatherhead, who wrote: “Sin is not something that can be ‘paid for’ by the suffering of another. Both the nature of sin and the nature of God are distorted by this idea.”
According to the Bible, many of the religions of the Middle East practiced human sacrifice, but God would not allow the Israelites to practice it. So if God truly abhorred the practice and refused to allow human sacrifice, how can we justify the claim that God sacrificed Jesus for the atonement of our sins?
British theologian Nathaniel Micklem said, “We pervert the idea of God if we allow ourselves to suppose that God did not and could not forgive sins apart from the death of Christ.” We limit God if we suggest that God would not forgive our sins without Jesus’ sacrificial death. Besides, Jesus never called himself “the Lamb of God,” who was sacrificed for the sins of the world.
A human father would be arrested for child abuse if he allowed his son to be nailed to a cross for any purpose. However, it continues to be a tenant of Christianity that God required Jesus to suffer death on the cross for our sins. God being willing to make such a sacrifice supposedly makes God more holy and more worthy of worship. I think any deity who required his son to be sacrificed is loathsome rather than worthy of worship.
It bothers me anytime I find similarities between things that were reportedly done by Jesus that are parts of pagan religions. Almost all of the ancient mystery religions were founded on the story of suffering, dying and rising gods like Dionysus (adopted into the church as St. Denis), Adonis, Orpheus, Attis, Osiris, Tammuz and Aesculapius. For instance, Aesculapius raised men from the dead and gave sight to the blind and like Attis and Adonis, he was mourned by women at his death. His resurrection took place, like that of Mithras, from a rock-tomb. Such similarities are extremely disturbing to me. I thought the Jesus’ stories were unique, but apparently they are not.
The “taurobolium” was the practice of the Romans in which a person who was sacrificing a bull was put into a pit with a perforated board placed over the pit’s opening. When the bull’s throat was cut, the blood poured down onto the person who was literally “washed in the blood.” When he came out of the pit, he was morally purified. I do not care for the imagery of being washed in Jesus’ blood to make us born again Christians. That sounds far too gross and pagan to me. I cannot agree with the writer of Hebrews: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
I believe Jesus was crucified; he died and was buried. Later the idea germinated and grew that God had raised him from the dead. In my opinion, beyond those basics, everything else about the resurrection is debatable. Even Paul and the gospel writers do not agree what Easter was, so there are few absolutes.
John put the following words into Jesus’ mouth: “I am the resurrection and the life.” I do not believe Jesus spoke these words prior to his death.
Many people heard Jesus speak during his life and were inspired by his teaching. Many people were in-spired by his love and compassion for the outcasts, the lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles and the woman caught in adultery. Others were inspired because he proclaimed that religion should enhance human life, not make it more difficult. Those people were inspired not by his death and resurrection, but by the life he lived. In the pre-Easter Jesus they caught a glimpse of God.
God forgave sins prior to Jesus and God forgives our sins today. Forgiveness of sin is not dependant on the sacrificial death of Jesus or his physical resurrection.
I like the following quote by Clarence Jordon:
“The resurrection of Jesus was simply God’s unwillingness to take our ‘no’ for an answer. He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.”
I do not believe in resuscitation, but I do believe in the resurrection into a spiritual body.
Jesus is alive – he is alive in us as we continue his legacy, as we care for the poor and unfortunate, as we attempt to build God’s kingdom on earth, as we endeavor to make our lives more Christ-like every day. That’s resurrection to me.