Doctrine of Christ (Part 32): The Work of Christ (25) - The Post-Mortem Appearances

October 05, 2017

More on the Gospels' Postmortem Appearance Narratives

Today we come to the end of our study of the Gospel appearance narratives concerning the resurrection of Jesus. We looked at a number of the postmortem appearances of the risen Lord. We ended last time with a discussion of Jesus' appearance to the disciples on the Sea of Tiberius in the miraculous catch of fish whereby Jesus recalled the disciples to that original call to become fishers of men.

I suggested last time that this appearance properly understood is an appearance to the disciples not having gone back to their old way of life but rather simply passing time in Galilee while waiting for the appointed rendezvous with Jesus on the mountaintop described in Matthew 28. In the second half of this chapter – John 21 – from verses 15 to 19 we have the personal interaction of Jesus with Peter described. Let's read that passage together – John 21:15-19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Sometimes people will interpret this passage as a rehabilitation of Peter after his having denied Christ three times. While I think it is correct that Jesus' threefold question “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” does reflect the threefold denial of Peter, I do not think that this is a rehabilitation scene. Why? We've already seen that Jesus has appeared to Peter already in Jerusalem. Remember in Luke's narrative of the Emmaus appearance, when the Emmaus disciples get back to Jerusalem the disciples have gathered together and they meet them by saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon. So Peter and Jesus, I think, have already come to terms by this point. Indeed, perhaps the reason that we don't have any narrative of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter is because it was so personal and intimate as the Lord restored Peter to faith and discipleship after Peter had denied him those three times. So now when Jesus appears to them unexpectedly on the Sea of Tiberius Peter is so eager to see Jesus that he throws himself into the water and swims to shore ahead of the boat to meet Jesus and can't even wait for the disciples to bring the boat to land. In this interaction between Peter and Jesus here, you notice that this is not a rehabilitation of Peter. There is no confession of sin or contrition on Peter's part. There is no word of forgiveness or absolution from Jesus. Rather, this is a re-commissioning scene. Peter is here commissioned to be the chief shepherd of the New Testament church.[1]

We shouldn't read into this, as people sometimes do, deep theological significance in the fact the word for “love” used by Peter and Jesus here is different. This is simply a stylistic variation that is common in Greek literature. They thought it was monotonous if you would simply repeat the same word over again, so they will use stylistic variance. You notice that with the variation between “feeding my sheep” and “tending my lambs.” It is synonymous. It is just there for stylistic variation.

What Jesus is doing here is recommissioning Peter to follow him. Just as he called Peter initially in Luke 5 with that great miraculous catch of fish – to follow him and become a fisher of men – so here Peter is recommissioned as the chief shepherd of the flock. So I do not think this is to be understood as a rehabilitation scene but rather it is properly understood as a commissioning scene of Peter.

That completes the postmortem appearances in the Gospel tradition. Scholars will sometimes ask about the sequence of these appearances. Sometimes critical scholars will say that these appearance narratives are mutually contradictory; that no sort of coherent sequence of events can be put together. But it seems to me that as you read the appearances it is relatively easy to list the chronological order into which these appearances fell. The very first appearance would be the appearance to the women near the empty tomb of Jesus as they discovered that the body is missing. That would then be followed by the appearance on the road to Emmaus as disciples have left and Jesus appears to them on the way. Some time around that time would be the appearance to Peter, as well. We are not sure whether it was before the appearance to the Emmaus disciples or afterwards, but roughly simultaneous with that appearance would be the appearance to Peter. Then that evening was the appearance to the Twelve gathered together in the upper room in Jerusalem. The next appearance was one week later to the Twelve, this time including Thomas, as they stayed in Jerusalem for the duration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread before going back to Galilee to meet with Jesus where he had appointed them. Next comes the appearance by the Sea of Tiberius. As the disciples are fishing, Jesus unexpectedly meets with them before the appointed rendezvous, and we have the appearance story that we just read together. Finally, there will be the mountaintop appearance in Galilee that is foreshadowed by the angel in Mark's account and narrated by Matthew in Matthew 28. So, in fact, it is not difficult to order these appearance narratives chronologically, and they tend to follow the sequence of the pilgrimages to and from the feasts in Jerusalem. The disciples go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage for the Passover Feast and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, then they return home to Galilee, and then later they will come back to the Feast of Pentecost where there will be the final appearances of Jesus that are not narrated in the Gospels but in the book of Acts and there may have been other appearances as well that Paul talks about that are not narrated in the Gospels.

Really, when you look at these appearance stories, the only remaining unresolved problem with them, I think, is the appearance to the women. Did the appearance to the women occur before the disciples’ inspection of the empty tomb or did it occur after the disciples’ inspection of the empty tomb? In the Gospel of Matthew, it seems that as the women run from the empty tomb to tell the disciples Jesus interrupts them in their journey and appears to them there. On the other hand, in John 20, the appearance to Mary Magdalene takes place after Peter and the beloved disciple have come and inspected the tomb and they leave and Mary remains at the tomb in tears and then has an appearance of Jesus. As you think about these appearances, there is a certain logical order that if you didn't have the Gospels and you just wanted to order them in a sort of logical way in which these would occur.[2]

First, there would be the women's discovery of the empty tomb. Logically that would come first. Then, secondly, the women would run to tell the disciples of what they had seen, and you would have then the disciples inspecting the empty tomb. They are skeptical that the women are correct in saying the tomb is now empty, but they are willing to go check it out and see for themselves. Then finally you would have the postmortem appearance to the women in which they see that indeed Jesus is risen from the dead and that is why the tomb was discovered empty. This would be the sort of logical order in which you would expect the events to take place. When you look at the Gospels, what you discover is that they actually do tend to fit this pattern. Only John's narrative has all three elements. John narrates the discovery of the empty tomb, the disciples’ inspection of the tomb, and then the appearance to the women. By contrast, Mark has only the discovery of the empty tomb. Matthew has the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearance to the women, but not the disciples' inspection. Luke has the women's discovery of the empty tomb and the disciples' inspection, but not the appearance to the women. Since Matthew has chosen not to relate item 2, he leapfrogs from 1 to 3. He has the tradition of the appearance to the women and he appends it directly to the narrative of the empty tomb so that it makes it look as if as they fled from the tomb Jesus appears to them and interrupts them before they reach the disciples. But if you put the whole picture together, in fact what happens, I think, is that the women run to tell the disciples (just as John says), the disciples then come to inspect the empty tomb and the women naturally run back with them, finally after the disciples have left there is an appearance to the women. The Emmaus disciples leave after hearing of number 2. The disciples have gone to inspect the tomb, but there has not yet been any resurrection appearances. So the Emmaus disciples set off for home thinking that the tomb has been found empty by women and verified by some of the disciples, but they are not aware of number 3. That doesn't happen until Mary runs back again to the disciples and says, I have seen the Lord.

So if we understand the Gospels as combining these three independent traditions – 1, 2, and 3 – then I think we can put them into a coherent chronological order by understanding Matthew to leave out number 2 and just skip from 1 to 3, and that makes it look as if the resurrection appearance to the women took place prior to their reaching the disciples when in fact it took place afterwards.

That completes what I wanted to share about these appearance narratives and the Gospel narratives in general.


Student: To sort of recap, how many days did he have – what period of time – from the first appearance to the final mountaintop? Secondly, doesn't it say he appeared to five hundred at one point and to others? And putting all that in perspective.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Let me address the last part of that question. There are appearances mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that we have no narrative of in the Gospels. The appearance to the five hundred brethren. The appearance to James, remarkably. We have no narrative of the appearance to Peter and no narrative of the appearance to James. We don't know why, but they are not narrated in the Gospels. It is unclear whether we have a narration to the appearance to all the apostles that Paul also mentions. That could be the appearance in Acts 1 at the ascension where Jesus appears to all of them and then departs from them. These Gospel appearance narratives are to be supplemented by the very early traditions that the apostle Paul knows about and hands on.

The first part of the question was over how many days did this occur? That is uncertain.[3] This is an interesting point. If you read Luke's Gospel, it makes it sound as if all of the appearances took place on Easter itself and at the end of the day Jesus leaves and ascends into heaven. Luke doesn't narrate any Galilean appearances. He just has Jesus appear Easter evening in the upper room and that is it. But then you turn the page to the book of Acts 1 (which Luke also writes) and he says, Jesus showed himself alive over a period of forty days through many appearances and proofs. So sometimes the Gospel writers will abbreviate what they are saying. It is uncertain as to exactly what the time involved is. We know that the appearance to Thomas in John was one week later. He says it was eight days later. Then they went back to Galilee. But we don't know how long they were in Galilee before the mountaintop appearance. So it is uncertain. John just says that the appearance by the Sea of Tiberius was the third appearance of Jesus to the Twelve disciples. But we don't know exactly. So basically we've got Luke's narrative or summary in Acts where he says it was over a period of around forty days. Pentecost was fifty days after Easter. So all of the appearances took place, it seems, within that period of time except for the appearance to the apostle Paul because he said, As to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – after, in effect, the ascension.

Student: So the mountaintop appearance in Matthew 28 is at a mountain in Galilee.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Student: But Luke says he ascended from the vicinity of Bethany. Where does that fit in?

Dr. Craig: I would say that we shouldn't understand Matthew's narrative to be an ascension narrative. It is an appearance narrative, and even though there is a sort of sense of finality to the Gospel of Matthew in that this is the close of the Gospel of Matthew and he leaves them with the Great Commission to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, it is not an ascension narrative. It doesn't say that then he ascended into heaven and left them. The ascension takes place in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives later, not in Galilee.

Student: I've always conflated those two in my mind.

Dr. Craig: Yes. The other day someone commented that the appearance on the mountaintop in Matthew was on the Mount of Olives. No. The Mount of Olives is across the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. You see Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. So this Galilean appearance is on some unknown mountain in Galilee. When you think about Jesus' Galilean ministry, remember it was in Galilee that thousands of people flocked to hear Jesus as he fed the five thousand or the four thousand. So one would imagine that if Jesus had appointed a rendezvous with the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, that it would not just be the Twelve that would come to meet with him there. Certainly the women would also come. And one might think there would be others who could come. So it is not at all outside the realm of probability that this is the appearance to the five hundred brethren, and that that is why we don't have a narrative of the appearance. It is because this is it in Matthew.

Student: What is your take on the fact that . . . why didn't Mary and some of the disciples immediately recognize Jesus when they first saw him? I know it says . . . doesn't it say their eyes were kept from recognizing him? What is your take on that?

Dr. Craig: I did address that a couple weeks ago, so let me refer you to the lesson there. But I will just say that in a nutshell (for those who didn't hear it) that we shouldn't try to explain this in a natural way. For example, that her tears had blinded her vision or that by the Sea of Tiberius the boat was so far from shore they couldn't tell who it was. On the contrary, John says they were not far from shore. He emphasizes how close they were to the shore. So I think the clue is what you mentioned in Luke with regard to the Emmaus disciples. It says their eyes were held from recognizing him. This was a supernatural blindness that was imposed by God and then lifted and removed in an instant at the moment of disclosure. So we need to ask what theological motif is being represented here, and I'm not sure. But one suggestion that I think is plausible is that Jesus is saying to the disciples that they will no longer relate to him in the same way in which they were accustomed to relate to him during his earthly life.[4] Jesus is now risen and ascended to a new mode of existence, and their relationship with him now will not be the familiar one that they knew when he walked among them and was with them. That is what is symbolized by this non-recognition motif.

Student: Can I back up to the end of last week's lesson? For clarification, because it sounded like you said when Christ was resurrected from the dead he was in his glorified body. This is what I'm trying to understand. There is nothing spectacular about his appearance unlike the transfiguration. We are not talking about the beatific vision here. I guess when I think of his final state – his glorified state – I think more of his beatific vision, not just him that looks almost like a common man in eating and walking and all this.

Dr. Craig: I think it is a real mistake to think that the glorification of Jesus takes place with his ascension into heaven. In the biblical conception, he rises from the dead in his glorified resurrection body. This is not a return to the earthly life. Jesus' resurrection body was not mortal and prone to disease and ready to die again. Rather, he rises to glory. This is a real resurrection and not just a revivification like Lazarus. I think the best indication of this is his ability to appear and disappear at will in various locales. You are right. We don't see the sort of dazzling light that you have in the transfiguration narrative. That is very true. But you do have a Jesus who is invested with supernatural abilities. He can suddenly appear in the upper room without having to open the door or come through the walls. He just appears in the room. Similarly with the Emmaus disciples and the breaking of the bread – he just vanishes out of their sight. And then he reappears in Jerusalem without traversing the distance in between. So I would say that in the conception of the Gospels, this is a supernatural body and not just a plain old earthly body that still remains to be glorified.

Student: As a follow on, why is he eating fish and all this though? He is eating fish a couple of times.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Student: So, it is a supernatural body, I don't . . . that is what I have . . .

Dr. Craig: As I said, I think that these remarkable, physical demonstrations of showing the wounds and eating the fish is meant to demonstrate to the disciples the corporeality and physicality of the resurrection body. They are not merely seeing a vision of the risen Lord like Stephen saw. Remember when Stephen is stoned he sees a vision of the Son of Man in heaven, but nobody else saw anything. It wasn't corporeal or physical. But Jesus wants to emphasize that this is a real resurrection in the Jewish sense of the word – corporeal and physical. It is very interesting. When you read the rabbis – the early Jewish commentaries – on angelic appearances, they would distinguish between a vision of an angel and an actual physical appearance of an angel. They would say the way you could tell the difference was that if the food consumed [by the angel was really gone] after the appearance was over then it was a bodily appearance. But if the food remained untouched despite what you saw then you know it was merely a subjective vision. So this Lukan story fits right in with this typical Jewish mindset that the ability to eat and consume food was indicative of a real physical appearance and not just a theophany or a Christophany or some sort of visionary experience.

Student: The physical resurrection is such a big deal, and I don't understand why Peter and John in the later books didn't emphasize or even bring about their experience with the postmortem resurrection.

Dr. Craig: Well, I don't know how to answer that question except to say that these authors in using the notion of resurrection (being risen from the dead) understood this in the typical Jewish way.[5] It is only modern theologians who have asked if a man raised from the dead would have his body still in the grave. For a first century Jew, the idea that someone could be raised from the dead while his corpse still remained in the grave would have been a contradiction in terms. It was absurd. So as Professor N. T. Wright emphasizes in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God over and over again, the word “resurrection,” whether used by Christians, by pagans (who rejected it), or by Jews (who looked forward to it), always meant a physical, corporeal resurrection, not some sort of an exaltation to heaven or a visionary experience. So I would say that in these other cases simply in using the word they are talking about a physical resurrection, and for some reason with their readers (unlike Paul's readers in Corinth) they didn't feel the need to emphasize it.

Student: As you know, I've spent a lot of time with Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the main things they believe is that Jesus rose only in spirit form and he did not use the physical body that he died in. I think of every single point that they believe, this is the number one easiest belief to refute, in my opinion, whenever I spent so much time with them. Because he goes so out of his way to say, Listen, I am not a spirit, and let me prove it to you. Let me eat, drink, touch my hands, show you it is the same body. Their explanations for this – it is unbelievable some of the stuff they will try to come up with. But they don't. Most of them say, I really don't know. I also think it is really important what you were talking about last week and what you were just talking about here about one of their main evidences for this is that, Hey, on the road to Emmaus they didn't recognize him. That is there number one evidence they have given me that this was not the body that he was crucified in, because they didn't recognize it. But you went out of your way – and I think it is very clear in Scripture – that this was something supernaturally done to their eyes. They were caused not to be able to recognize him, not because of the way he looked but something that was actually done to them. That is a really important point if you talk to Jehovah's Witnesses about this.

Dr. Craig: The Jehovah's Witness is burdened by his commitment to the reliability of Scripture to try to explain away these problems, whereas the modern liberal theologian who doesn't believe in the historicity of the narratives can just dismiss them as legends and myths. He doesn't believe in them either. He doesn't believe in physical appearances, but he will simply regard these as unhistorical, mythological, or legendary stories. His skepticism is born out of a presupposition against miracles – you cannot have a nature miracle as astounding as the resurrection of a dead man.

Student: In John 20 when he appears to the women and he is talking to Mary Magdalene and he says, Don't cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God and your God. It seems out of place to me for the one reason he says, Go tell them that I am going to go be ascended to the Father knowing that he is going to appear to them a bunch of times over forty days. That seems odd. Then this odd statement, Don't cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father. It doesn't seem to have any reason behind it to me. I was hoping you could explain.

Dr. Craig: Let me comment on the latter part of your question first. I think when you read this Johannine appearance story in light of the story in Matthew, it sheds additional light on it. In Matthew 28:9 it says, “And behold, Jesus met them and said, 'Hail!' And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.” If this is the same appearance, I think that Mary has fallen at the feet of Jesus and they are clinging to his ankles, and Jesus is saying, Stop clinging to me! I've not yet ascended to the Father. I haven't left you yet, in other words, And I'm still going to be with you for a time. But I am ascending to my God and your God, but eventually. That would be the way I would understand the passage.[6] I fully grant you that taken in isolation it does appear very puzzling. But it seems to me that that is the best way to understand it.

Student: OK, that makes sense. Thanks.

Dr. Craig: Good.


Having surveyed the biblical data concerning the resurrection of Jesus, we now want to turn to a systematic summary of the resurrection. We will begin by looking at a historical survey of how theologians over the centuries (indeed, millenia) have understood the resurrection of Jesus. I think it is sufficient to simply begin today by saying that the earliest church fathers understood the resurrection of Jesus to be a literal event. They understood it to be literally the bodily, physical resurrection of Jesus to immortality and glory in exactly the same way that Jews understood the resurrection except that this had occurred in advance of the eschatological resurrection at the end of history in the person of Jesus. Indeed, the biggest debate among the early church fathers with respect to the resurrection of the dead wasn't so much about Jesus as it was about the notion of the resurrection of the flesh. Would the very flesh that we have be resurrected? The church fathers tended to affirm this – we would be resurrected in the flesh and that Jesus carried his fleshly body into heaven with his ascension and is there at the right hand of God. That raises all sorts of difficult questions about how Jesus can be physically and bodily in heaven in his resurrection fleshly body, but we don't need to deal with those now. Here we are simply surveying theological thought on this, and it is very clear that for the early church fathers, indeed really right up until the Enlightenment in the 17th century, that the overwhelming dominant view of the resurrection of Jesus was that this was a literal event that transpired to Jesus of Nazareth.

During the Enlightenment in Europe, that is to say beginning around the late 17th century and on into the 18th century, skepticism concerning the resurrection of Jesus began to arise. The first such alternative to the resurrection as a literal event was the so-called conspiracy theory. We will look at that theory next time.[7]



[1] 5:00

[2] 10:08

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:07

[5] 25:06

[6] 30:02

[7] Total Running Time: 33:44 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)