It’s been over five years now since our faithful Christian president led us into Iraq, on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had developed and was continuing to develop biological, chemical and nuclear “weapons of mass destruction” intended for use against the United States. It was a charge that the Bush administration repeated so often that the acronym WMD became part of common, everyday speech. And yet, who today, a mere half-dozen years later, even remembers the so-called “threat” of Saddam’s alleged WMDs?
Some of us do, of course, when we stop to think about it. But for many Americans, the story has re-written itself. The invasion of Iraq has become “The War on Terror,” even though, as the Bush administration had to admit, “[w]e have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks.” Despite the fact that the documentation is still there, and is widely available via the Internet, the story has already been re-written, in the minds of many conservative Americans. The Iraq War has become the War on Terror, and few people even remember when it was The War to Get Saddam.
That’s an observation worth remembering today, Easter, 2008, because it shows how little time is needed to transform a story from an embarrassment into something satisfying, noble, and maybe even profound, just by tweaking the facts and shifting the emphasis. Our experience in Iraq, and in how people change their thinking about Iraq, gives us some significant insights into how the death of Jesus could become his resurrection with almost no effort at all.
According to the Bible, Jesus said, “where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Obviously, this is not literally true: you can go to any Christian church on Sunday, where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands gather in Jesus’ name, and you will not see him among the attendees. But Christians have learned to believe in a sort of “spiritual” truth, a “truth” that’s true even when you don’t see it. In fact, it’s a mark of faith and of spiritual insight to be able to perceive something as “spiritually true” even when it’s not consistent with what we actually see and experience in the real world.
This is a key point. For Christians, when real-world truth seems to run contrary to spiritual truth, the spiritual truth becomes even more true. This is Christian faith in action, the ability to believe even more strongly when the mundane appearances are against you. A Jesus who rose from the grave spiritually would not be proven false by a physical corpse that was still dead, because his resurrection would be a spiritual truth, and thus immune from such falsifications. A spiritual resurrection would thus be more credible and more appealing, because it would show that Jesus had progressed to a higher state of being, in which earthly afflictions could no longer affect him.
The only problem with the idea of a spiritual resurrection of Jesus is how to account for the fact that Christians today believe in a physical resurrection. And that’s where the Iraq war comes in. Stories can undergo substantial transformations in a remarkably short time, much less than the time gap that exists between the earliest Christian writings and the events they purport to record. And some of these writings seem to catch this transformation process in action.
In I Cor. 15, for example, Paul takes great pains to contrast the body that is raised in resurrection with the body that was originally buried, saying that “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Paul does not declare that Jesus’ original flesh and blood were raised, and in fact says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” The contrast could not be plainer: the perishable body that is “sown” (buried) does not inherit the spiritual, imperishable body that is raised.
In modern Christian thinking, the bodies of the dead are “transformed,” along the lines of the magical “change” that is supposed to happen to Christians at the Last Trumpet: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” But no matter how you slice it, the resurrection body is explicitly taught as a spiritual body. It’s not the original flesh-and-blood brought back to life. And the alleged resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be the first one of these spiritual resurrections.
All of the subsequent “ghost story” accounts of a “resurrected” Jesus follow this “spiritual body” pattern: able to walk through locked doors, able to appear and disappear at will, able to change his appearance so that his friends and disciples would not recognize him (and apparently, though the Bible does not explicitly mention this, with the ghost’s uncanny ability to appear fully clothed even after walking through solid walls). Despite the modern Christian’s insistence that Jesus’ physical body rose from the dead, the Biblical accounts are quite unmistakably dealing with a spiritual body. Indeed, the only meaningful difference between the resurrection story and the classic ghost story is the disappearance of the original, physical body.
So what about that body? The traditional story is that it must have been raised from the dead because it wasn’t in the tomb the disciples were expecting it in. And yet, even in the Gospel stories, there’s no mention of anyone actually seeing Jesus’ dead body come back to life. Much is made of the fact that the Pharisees allegedly posted a guard on the tomb, yet according to Matthew, the guard was not even requested until after the Sabbath, leaving the corpse completely unsupervised for over 24 hours. Given the well-known rivalries among the various disciples, and Jesus famous (and controversial) teachings about how it was permissible to do good works on the Sabbath, is it so much to suppose that the body might well have been taken (perhaps without permission) by some sub-group of disciples?
Naturally, it would be difficult to keep something like that a secret. People would be bound to find out that some of the disciples had taken the body. Given a spiritual resurrection, however, who would care what happened to the old corpse? Most of the people who have ever lived and died as Christians have had their earthly remains turn to dust and vanish, not that this is seen as being any obstacle to the resurrection of the dead. Why would it be? Spiritual bodies are not natural bodies, as Paul clearly taught. And the body that is raised is spiritual.
It’s interesting to note that Matthew, in particular, testifies indirectly to at least one aspect of this theory: he confirms that it was commonly reported in Palestine that the disciples had taken the body. In fact, the rumors of disciples taking the body were so widespread that Matthew wrote the story of the guards specifically to refute the claim. Notice, though, that Matthew’s account is suspiciously inconsistent: Even Christian commentators, for example, have pointed out that Roman guards would have been in serious trouble had they confessed to sleeping on duty, so it’s not likely that the Pharisees would have suggested such a story or that the guards would have agreed to it, especially when it would be so much simpler to say the body had been taken before they got there.
Also, if the Pharisees did bribe the guards to lie, how would Matthew have found out about it? He was neither a guard nor a member of the Sanhedrin, and the guilty parties aren’t likely to have told him. He doesn’t even pretend divine inspiration. He just addresses a vexing problem by telling a plausible (or semi-plausible) story about it. (How many times do we see Christian arguments like that, eh?)
In any case, the local testimony was that the body was missing because the disciples (or at least some of the disciples) took it. And if they took it secretly and without permission, the other disciples’ surprise at the missing body could very well have started the first resurrection rumors. Add in Jesus’ teachings about spiritual “truth” being more enduring and meaningful than “worldly” truth, and voila, instant resurrection. All it takes to turn that spiritual resurrection into a physical one is a bit of time, and as the Iraq war shows us, not too much of that.
The problem with “spiritual” truth is that its greatest strength—the ability to be just as true no matter what the external realities—is also its greatest weakness. Because spiritual truth is true no matter what the real world truth, it is thereby largely irrelevant to real world truth. It needs to be tied back to the real world somehow, or else it becomes purely a mental exercise. Where the spiritual resurrection would have tremendous appeal to the core group of spiritually-minded disciples (still grieving and in denial over Jesus’ death), the larger, more practical audience for the Gospel would be more materially-minded, and would want more solid reassurances.
If it seems surprising to think that Christians might have gone from believing in a spiritual resurrection to believing in a physical one in only twenty years or so (from the crucifixion in the early 30’s to the first New Testament books in the early 50’s), just look at how much our popular perceptions of the Iraq war have changed in only a quarter of that time, even with readily-available documentation, both in text and on video, of what arguments were being used (and ignored) in justifying the war both then and now. Whenever a story conflicts with what people want to believe, people change the story. If that’s true in our day, with all the information we have at our disposal, imagine how much easier it must have been 2,000 years ago. The ingredients for an evolving gospel were all present. All that would be needed is for people then to act like people now.