(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 9: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”)
In John 7:24, Jesus cautions his disciples, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge [with] righteous judgment.” Appearances can be deceiving—especially when they’re the “appearances” of a recently-deceased loved one.
In the next section of Chapter 9, William Lane Craig takes us through the so-called “appearances” of Jesus. His intention is to prove that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but if we take care to “judge with correct judgment” (as more modern translations put it), then I think we’ll see that the postmortem “appearances” of Jesus are indeed a (self-)deception.
Craig begins with Paul’s testimony in 1 Cor. 15:3-8. I’ll give the NIV version here.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Craig argues that Paul’s list of eyewitnesses “guarantees that such appearances occurred.” That’s an interesting point, but it’s not really the most important one. The real question here is what sort of “appearances” are we talking about? The original Greek uses a verb that means “to be seen by” someone, but does that mean an appearance that was objectively and physically real, or are we talking about a more subjective (aka “spiritual”) variety of vision?
The fact that we’re talking about “appearances” as rare, isolated events means we’re almost certainly talking about the latter alternative. If the so-called Resurrection were a case of Jesus’ physical body coming back to life and walking around so that people could see and hear him, then it would be a continuous existence that would be visible to everyone. He wouldn’t just *poof* show up and then *poof* disappear again; people would be able to see him coming and going. They’d also have to open the door for him, because one of the characteristics of a physical body is the inability to walk through walls.
Clearly, then, Paul is recording instances of people “seeing” a Jesus who has been “raised” in a spiritual body, just as Paul himself argues extensively a few verses later. Later Gospels embellish Paul’s list of witnesses with details intended to prove that Jesus could manifest himself physically as well, but even in the most favorable of interpretations, Jesus’ actual resurrection body was immaterial and invisible at least most of the time.
It’s important to remember, therefore, that these appearances are appearances of a spiritual Jesus. That’s an important distinction, though it’s not one that Craig looks at here. His focus is exclusively on whether the “appearance” happened, not on what the true nature of the experience was. So let’s have a look at each of these appearances, as discussed by Craig.
1. Appearance to Peter. We have no story in the gospels telling of Jesus’ appearance to Peter. But the appearance is mentioned here in the old Christian tradition quoted by Paul… In addition to this, the appearance to Peter is mentioned in another old Christian tradition found in Luke 24:34: “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
That’s really odd, isn’t it? Paul is giving a chronological order of the appearances of Jesus: Peter (aka Cephas, aka Simon) is the first one Jesus appears to, and then he appears to the Twelve, and then to 500, then to James, then to the apostles (as distinct from the Twelve? hmm), and lastly to Paul. No women anywhere in the list, until you get to the 500 (and even then, the phrase “and sisters” is not in the original Greek). Peter, according to Paul’s tradition, was the first.
And nobody has any details regarding the first postmortem appearance of Jesus to one of the leading apostles? Isn’t that incredibly bizarre? Even Luke, who makes a vague reference to this “appearance,” makes no attempt to tell the story. It’s like the whole thing is being swept under the rug for some reason. Clearly, Peter had a story of some kind, but for some reason that story was not a good fit for the Gospel, and was therefore omitted.
This is an important point, because it shows us that there was some kind of selective criterion being used to choose which stories got included in the Gospel and which did not. There’s some purpose here that’s overruling the ordinary historical criteria like “Was this a significant event?” and “Did it happen to a significant person.” Scholars today, including Dr. Craig, are basing their conclusions on documents biased by arbitrarily selective reporting.
2. Appearance to the Twelve. Undoubtedly, the group referred to here is that original group of twelve disciples who had been chosen by Jesus during His ministry—minus, of course, Judas, whose absence didn’t affect the formal title of the group.
This is a bit misleading on Craig’s part. Most of the New Testament references to the apostles after Judas’ death refer to them as “the Eleven,” not “the Twelve.” In fact, the only post-crucifixion references to “the twelve” are when Thomas “Doubting Thomas” Didymus is referred to as “one of the twelve” (in John 20:24), plus Acts 6:2 (after they selected a replacement for Judas and thus brought the number up to 12 again), and then Paul’s inaccurate reference in I Cor. 15.
So kind of a goof on Paul’s part. If Jesus had appeared to the apostles, he’d have appeared to the Eleven, not the Twelve, because Judas was supposed to be dead by then. Or at least, that’s how they tell the story today.
3. Appearance to five hundred brethren. The third appearance comes as somewhat of a shock: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time”! This is surprising, since we have no mention whatsoever of this appearance anywhere else in the New Testament. This might make us rather skeptical about this appearance, but Paul himself apparently had personal contact with these people, since he knew that some had died.
This one’s kind of fun because it shows how Craig reacts to a favorable story that doesn’t meet the 6 criteria he laid out for historical acceptance. “Aw, hell, who cares! accept it anyway!”
What’s interesting about this passage, apart from the fact that even Craig admits it’s unsupported, is the peculiar reference to some of the 500 having died in the interval between this alleged appearance and the writing of 1 Corinthians. Most conservative scholars agree that 1 Corinthians is one of the earliest Christian documents extant, and yet here’s Paul referring to post-resurrection appearances as something that happened sufficiently long ago that it’s remarkable to note that many of those involved are still alive.
How many people are there who witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama? Of Bill Clinton? Of Ronald Reagan? Of Harry Truman? Of Woodrow Wilson? If you take a recent event, like the inauguration of President Obama, there’s nothing remarkable about the fact that most of the people alive at the time are still alive today. It would be astonishing, though, if most of the witnesses to Wilson’s inauguration were still alive. Some might even call that a miracle, as though witnessing Wilson’s inauguration had supernaturally extended their lifespan.
So what is Paul saying here? Clearly, he’s viewing the resurrection as an event that happened quite a while ago, like maybe a few decades. Is he implying that contact with the resurrected Jesus somehow extended people’s lifespan? That would be kinda cool if it were true, but it would also push the surviving Christian manuscripts to a much later date than most conservative scholars would be comfortable with.
Probably the most neutral conclusion would be to simply say Paul is merely reporting an implausible rumor that he has heard but that didn’t really happen (hence its absence from all other traditions). Craig tries to imply that Paul knew some of these people personally, but that’s pure speculation on his part—we know (or might think we know) that most Vietnam veterans are still alive, as a matter of common sense, but that doesn’t require that we know any of them personally.
4 Appearance to James. The next appearance is one of the most amazing of all. Jesus appeared to James, His younger brother. What makes this amazing is that apparently neither James nor any of Jesus’ younger brothers believed in Jesus during His lifetime (Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 7:1-10). They didn’t believe He was the Messiah, or a prophet, or even anybody special. By the criterion of embarrassment, this is doubtless a historical fact of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Craig goes on to cite later verses that show James not only converted at some point, but also became a leading apostle. He wants us to believe that James and Jesus’ other brothers were converted to Christianity by the resurrection, but he’s trying a bit too hard. Notice, he cites a couple places from early in Jesus’ ministry in which his (unnamed) brothers are described as not believing in him. Then he cites passages in Acts where they are believers. Assuming these passages are all true, when did these brothers convert? At the resurrection? During the later years of Jesus’ ministry? During the early days of the church? The Bible does not say. Craig wants them to have been converted by a resurrected Jesus showing up to prove his divinity to them, but that’s not actually in the Bible.
If we think about it, this account has the same problems as Peter’s missing resurrection experience. As hard as it is to imaging the church “forgetting” to mention the first appearance of Jesus to a leading apostle, can you imagine the apostolic church failing to notice that a resurrected Jesus was going around converting unbelievers to Christianity? Craig finds that argument so compelling he’s willing to retroactively insert it, by implication, back into the Bible itself. It’s highly implausible that the church could gain a new apostle through the evangelistic ministry of a resurrected savior, and not think the story was worth mentioning.
5. Appearance to “all the apostles.” This appearance was probably to a limited circle of Christian missionaries somewhat wider than the Twelve. For such a group, see Acts 1:21-22. Once again, the fact of this appearance is guaranteed by Paul’s personal contact with the apostles themselves.
What is not guaranteed, however, is whether Paul was careful to make any distinctions between a literal, physical appearance of Jesus, or whether it was the kind of spiritual appearance that many believers accept as truth, even to this day. All Paul tells us is that Jesus was “seen” by all the apostles—and notice, this time there’s no claim that he appeared to them all at the same time, i.e. he could have been referring to separate, subjective “appearances” to each of the apostles individually.
6. Appearance to Saul of Tarsus. The final appearance is just as amazing as the appearance to James: “Last of all,” says Paul, “he appeared to me also.” The story of Jesus’ appearance to Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) just outside Damascus is related in Acts 9:1-9 and is later told again twice. That this event actually occurred is established beyond doubt by Paul’s references to it in his own letters.
This is probably the most conclusive piece of evidence of them all, though not in the way Craig would like it to be. Notice, this is an appearance of Jesus, just like all the others. There’s just one problem. By Acts 9, Jesus had been gone from the earth for 8 whole chapters, having ascended bodily into heaven at the beginning of chapter 1. And there, we’re told, Jesus is going to stay until Judgment Day. The appearance of Jesus to Paul happened at a time when, according to the Bible, Jesus was not even here.
Nor is that all. Luke tells us in Acts 9:7 that during this “appearance” those who were with Paul “saw no one,” so we know that when we’re talking about the postmortem appearances of Jesus, we’re talking about appearances that only certain people can see, rather than a literal, materially-visible appearance. What’s more, in Acts 22:9 Paul contradicts Luke’s account and declares that “they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.” (The modern Christian apologetic is that when Paul says “heard” he really means “understood,” but that interpretation doesn’t really fit the context.)
So we have “appearances” that don’t really appear, and “hearing” that doesn’t necessarily mean you heard. That sounds more like some kind of vision than an actual appearance. And sure enough, in his testimony before King Agrippa, Paul declares that his experience on the road to Damascus was, in fact, a “heavenly vision.”
But remember, this “heavenly vision,” which occurred long after Jesus was no longer here, was just as much one of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus as all the others, which means that the others, as well, would count as being genuine appearances whether or not Jesus was actually there. Even taking Biblical accounts at face value, the best Craig can hope to prove is that he has multiple historical references to subjective “appearances” of Jesus that did not require any actual, literal resurrection or presence of Jesus in order to be “true” (in the Christian sense).
Next week, Craig will look at some of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, trying to prove that the resurrection was a literal, physical resurrection. Stay tuned.