Doctrine of Christ (part 15)

December 19, 2011     Time: 00:22:36

We have been talking about the resurrection of Jesus, and last time we looked at the Scriptural data concerning Jesus’ resurrection. Now we want to do a historical survey of various attempts to interpret this event.

Historical Survey of Various Theories

Literal Interpretation

The earliest position of the church fathers was that the resurrection of Jesus was a literal, historical event, that is to say, that the body of Jesus of Nazareth that was crucified and laid in the tomb actually was raised again to new life and then taken into heaven. Jesus ascended into heaven. Early church fathers like Tertullian had a very strong emphasis on the resurrection of the flesh, that Christ didn’t just rise in a sort of spiritual way, but that it was his flesh which rose again from the dead and which he carried with him into heaven when he ascended. Therefore, they repudiated any attempt to have a Gnostic view of the resurrection of Christ which would depreciate the value of the human body or of the material in favor of the spiritual. Rather they affirmed the value of the material and the fleshly and the corporeal by saying that Christ rose literally with his human body and carried it with him into heaven. This was the position of the early church fathers.

Conspiracy Theory

A second position emerged millenia later – the so-called Conspiracy Theory. Although this was the earliest counter-explanation of the resurrection of Jesus that is actually found in the 28th chapter of Matthew, where Jews said to the guards, “Tell people his disciples came by night and stole him away,” this theory was resuscitated in the 18th century by European deists. Deists were theists who believed in a Creator God of the universe who is the source of the moral law and to whom we have moral obligations but who has not revealed himself specially in any particular religion, such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism. Therefore, the deists did not believe in the reality of miracles, of God’s intervention in history. The deists’ God has often been compared to the clockmaker God, who made the clock in the beginning, designed it, wound it up, and then set it ticking and did not tinker with the mechanism thereafter, didn’t interfere to adjust the clock in anyway. Therefore, miracles – like the resurrection of Jesus – do not occur.

A good example of this perspective would be Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus was an 18th century German Christian who began to have severe doubts about his faith and eventually wrote a massive manuscript in which he expressed all of these, including his doubts about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Reimarus basically held that the resurrection was a conspiracy engineered by the earliest disciples. The disciples had enjoyed the easy life of preaching that they had had with Jesus – traveling about and teaching people. So in order to continue this lifestyle, they stole the body out of the tomb and then lied to people to say that Jesus was risen from the dead, so that the cause of Christ and their role as apostles of Christ could continue. Reimarus never published his book, but I think it was his daughter who showed it to G.E. Lessing, who was the librarian at a town called Wolfenbüttel in Germany. Lessing began to publish excerpts from the manuscript and passed them off as fragments of an unknown author which he had found in the library.1 These “fragments of an anonymous author,” as Lessing called them, created a storm of controversy in Germany because of its attack upon the resurrection of Jesus. This basically initiated this conspiracy theory, which then was adopted by other continental and English deists as well and basically treated the resurrection of Jesus as a hoax that was engineered by the disciples.

Apparent Death Theory

Toward the end of the 18th century another theory began to appear on the scene. This was the Apparent Death Theory. This theory was defended by people like H.E.G. Paulus (1761-1851) and, sadly, even the so-called Father of Modern Theology Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Paulus was a champion of what has been called the “natural explanation school of biblical interpretation.” That is to say, he accepted the letter of the biblical text and what it said, but he would then provide natural explanations of these events, so that the events didn’t need to be thought of as miraculous. For example, Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with the fish and the loaves – that was done because there was a cave filled with bread and fish, and disciples were inside of that, and as they would hand it out to him from the cave, then he would distribute it to the crowds. Or Jesus’ walking on the water was achieved by a wooden, flat platform floating just beneath the surface, and he would walk on this platform, and it would look as if he were walking on the water. Similarly, Paulus believed that the resurrection of Jesus could be explained by saying that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. He merely passed out and then revived in the tomb and, coming out of the tomb, appeared to his disciples, who thought that he was risen from the dead.

Sometimes these apparent death theories could become very elaborate. Sometimes it would be thought that Luke, the physician, was actually in on the conspiracy, and he administered drugs to Jesus which would dull the pain and make him pass out on the cross, and then he would help to revive him in the tomb. It was sometimes thought there was a secret society, maybe of the Essenes, who were behind this, and they were engineering this apparent death. Sometimes even Jesus himself was in on the scheme to bring this about and thereby to perpetuate the idea that he was risen from the dead. Schleiermacher, as I say, the father of modern theology (so-called), actually adopted this view for himself. The resurrection of Jesus was just an apparent death. Schleiermacher would say that Jesus was nearly dead – it wasn’t as though he just fainted – he was nearly dead, but somehow there was still this glimmer of life in him; and being laid in the tomb with the coolness of the temperature, and there was probably electrical activity from the storms that were going on at the time, somehow re-energized the body, and it revived him, and he came out and convinced everyone he was risen from the dead.

Mythology Theory

The Apparent Death Theory, as you can imagine, didn’t last too long! It wasn’t too long before the Apparent Death Theory fell back into the grave. And along came the Mythology Theory of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). In 1835, just after Schleiermacher had published his own work, Strauss came out with a book that is really pivotal in the history of theology and of historical Jesus study called The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. It was an absolute watershed in the history of theological thought about who Jesus was. Strauss rejected the Conspiracy Theory of Reimarus as absurd and concocted. He said no great religious movement has ever been founded on deceit. It is obvious that their adherents sincerely believed the truth of what they proclaimed2. It would be absurd to suggest that the original disciples were hoaxers and conspirators. But neither did he find plausible the Apparent Death Theory of Paulus. He said that the contorted and ad hoc explanations that Paulus had come up with were just utterly implausible, and in particular he said that a half-dead Jesus who crept out of the tomb desperately in need of bandaging and medical attention would never have elicited in the disciples the belief that he was the conqueror of death and the prince of life rather than someone who had just managed to barely escape the executioner!

So Strauss said neither the Conspiracy Theory nor the Apparent Death Theory was credible. But that didn’t mean that he was ready to adopt the literal view of the church fathers. Rather, under the explicit influence of David Hume (it is interesting that Strauss actually mentions Hume by name), he was convinced that you could never posit miraculous explanations of historical events. Another explanation would always be more probable. So under the influence of Hume, he proposed the theory of myths. This basically said that there was a considerable length of time in between the crucifixion of Jesus and the eventual composition of the Gospels. Strauss tried to move the Gospels back as far as he could from the event of the crucifixion – to push their composition into the second century after Christ – to allow this window of opportunity during which the original stories about Jesus could be told and re-told and overlaid with legend and mythology until the rabbi from Nazareth was transformed into the divine Son of God risen from the dead. So stories like the empty tomb and its discovery and the stories of Jesus’ appearances alive after his death are all legends. They are legends and stories shaped by mythology that arose decades after Jesus was gone and buried and do not represent the historical facts about what actually happened, which are now very difficult to recover.

Strauss’ myth theory became really the dominant view among New Testament scholars during the first part of the 20th century. In particular, it is basically the same view that was adopted by Rudolf Bultmann, who was one of the most influential New Testament scholars during the 20th century. Bultmann believed that the resurrection of Jesus is basically a myth and that what we need to do is de-mythologize it. We need to strip away the mythology of it to try to see what its real significance is. Strauss did the same thing. Strauss appealed to Hegel’s philosophy – the German idealist3 – to find the real message of Christ. What Strauss said is that the incarnation and resurrection of Christ is really a kind of pictorial, or metaphorical, expression of Hegel’s view that the infinite and the finite are one. The infinite, which is the Absolute or God, unfolds in the finite world, in the material universe, and so the finite is really just an expression of the infinite. It is a kind of pantheism, in effect. Well, Bultmann was not an idealist. Instead, he turned to Heidegger the existentialist.4 (You always turn to the philosophers that are contemporaneous with you to find the truth behind the myth of Christ and the resurrection!) And existentialist philosophy was atheistic. And so, for Bultmann, the resurrection really had no different meaning than that of the cross of Christ, which was simply that life will end in death and that we can live authentic lives, genuine lives, in the face of death and our own finite existence. That was the truth behind the resurrection, which is mythologically expressed in the Scriptures by the notion that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. That was the myth theory.5

Subjective Vision Theory

Another theory closely related to this is the Subjective Vision Theory. Strauss could not deny that the original disciples saw or had experiences of seeing Jesus alive from the dead because even though he could push the Gospels out into the second century from the crucifixion, he couldn’t do that with the letters of Paul. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15 lists the witnesses of the risen Christ, and so to explain those away Strauss would appeal to hallucinations and say that the disciples simply hallucinated. That became the centerpiece of the Subjective Vision Theory on the part of scholars like Emanuel Hirsch and then more recently the contemporary New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann, whom I’ve had the privilege of debating on two occasions on this subject of the resurrection of Jesus and actually have a book co-authored with on Jesus’ resurrection.6

This view says that the disciples had these visions of seeing Jesus alive after his death. Now these visions were not actual sightings of Jesus; these were subjective. That is to say, they were projections of the disciples’ own consciousnesses, of their own minds. So Lüdemann, for example, thinks that Peter was emotionally distraught for having denied Jesus three times and consumed with guilt because he had let his Lord down and denied Jesus. So as a psychological release, Peter projected visions of Jesus alive after his death, and this gave him a sort of catharsis and release from his guilt. This started a chain reaction among the disciples, and they began to hallucinate – although Lüdemann doesn’t like that word “hallucinate.” He prefers to speak of subjective visions – “hallucinate” sounds too demeaning! He wants to say these are religious visions profoundly important and significant on the part of those who had them. So this started a chain reaction of these visionary experiences.

Now, you might say, but what about Paul? Paul wasn’t in the chain because he was a persecutor of the early church – he was a Jewish Pharisee who was ravaging the church. What about his experience? Well, Lüdemann says that Paul was laboring under a secret guilt complex that he wasn’t even aware of because he couldn’t live up to the demands of the Jewish law. He was zealous for the Jewish law, but he couldn’t live up to it, so he felt guilty as a Jew, and his zeal to persecute Christianity was merely an expression of an over-compensation for a secret attraction that he felt to Christianity. And finally, on the road to Damascus, this subconscious attraction burst into consciousness, and he projected this vision of Jesus on the Damascus road, and that led to Paul’s conversion. The empty tomb story is a later legend that has no historical credibility and arose years later as an explanation for what happened to the body. But the resurrection originated in these subjective visions on the part of the disciples.

Objective Vision Theory

Now a somewhat different view, and more sympathetic view towards orthodoxy, is the Objective Vision Theory, which has been defended by Hans Grass and my doctoral mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg. The idea of an objective vision might sound like an oxymoron at first – how can you have an objective vision? A vision is something that isn’t objective; it is in your mind. But what Grass and Pannenberg believe is that God caused the disciples to see these visions of Jesus7 and that they were actually seeing Jesus. They weren’t self-induced hallucinations; they weren’t projections of their own minds in the way that Lüdemann thinks. Rather, God caused the disciples to have these visions of Jesus. An analogy of this is that sometimes people will have what are called veridical visions. A veridical vision is a vision which is accurate; it really is a vision in which you see something. For example, maybe God could cause me right now to have a vision of Bryant Wright, wherever he is (maybe sitting in his study) and I might see a vision of him, and it would be accurate. So it would be a veridical vision.

Pannenberg and Grass say that what the disciples had were veridical visions caused by God. The appearances were not in the external world, and therefore they dismiss as legendary the physicality of these appearances. Jesus didn’t really give the disciples fish to eat, they didn’t really touch his body – he wasn’t really physically present. This was just a visionary seeing. But it wasn’t a hallucination; it was a veridical vision. They were seeing Jesus in glory, as it were. Therefore, they don’t believe in the empty tomb. Well, Grass doesn’t believe in the empty tomb – according to Grass the empty tomb is a legend, and the resurrection of Jesus is just the seeing of Jesus in his spiritual body. Pannenberg differs from Grass in that Pannenberg does affirm the empty tomb. Pannenberg believes the body of Jesus was raised from the dead and the tomb was left empty as a result; but he doesn’t believe in the physical resurrection appearances. He thinks that somehow the body was de-materialized or something and that then what the disciples experienced were these objective visions.

There is one more theory that I want to survey next time. We will pick up this last one – the Interpretation Theory – next time. But this gives you a bird’s eye view of some of the principal, historical explanations of the New Testament materials about the resurrection.8


1 5:06

2 10:00

3 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

4 Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

5 15:10

6 William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann, ed. Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000).

7 20:04

8 Total Running Time: 22:36 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)