Doctrine of Christ (Part 34): The Work of Christ (27) - Resurrection Theories

October 24, 2017     Time: 20:24

Mythology, Subjective and Objective Vision, Interpretation Theories

In our survey of theories of the resurrection of Jesus we've looked at the advent of modernity with the Enlightenment and saw the skepticism that arose concerning Jesus' resurrection. We talked about the conspiracy theory of Reimarus and then the apparent death theory of Heinrich Paulus. We now come to a third theory – the mythology theory. With the publication in 1835 of his book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, David Friedrich Strauss turned a major hinge in Christian history. He sounded the death knell for both the apparent death theory and the conspiracy theory. He saw that neither of these were plausible accounts of the evidence, and therefore he sought a third alternative in what we can call the mythological explanation. According to this view the miraculous events of the Gospels never happened. Rather the Gospel accounts of these events are the result of a long process of the accrual of legend and the shaping of religious imagination. Here's how Strauss contrasted his theory with those of his predecessors. He writes:

In the view of the church, Jesus was miraculously revived; according to the deistic view of Reimarus, his corpse was stolen by the disciples; in the rationalistic view, he only appeared to be dead and revived; according to our view the imagination of his followers aroused in their deepest spirit, presented their Master revived, for they could not possibly think of him as dead. What for a long time was valid as an external fact, first miraculous, then deceptive, finally simply natural, is hereby reduced completely to the state of mind and made into an inner event.[1]

That is a tremendously significant sentence – “What for a long time was valid as an external fact, first miraculous, then deceptive, finally simply natural, is hereby reduced completely to the state of mind and made into an inner event.” Strauss thus denied that there was any external fact to be explained. The Gospel accounts are themselves unreliable legends which accrued over the years, colored by mythology.

The fact that the resurrection is unhistorical didn't mean for Strauss that it had lost its religious significance. Rather he thought that a spiritual truth was contained within the husk of a delusion. Even though this mythological Jesus never really existed, nevertheless he thinks that the myth does embody an important spiritual truth, namely the truth of the unity of the infinite and the finite, of God and man. Not indeed the unity of God and the individual man, Jesus, but rather the unity of God and mankind as a whole. Yes, Strauss was a self-confessed pantheist and the truth of pantheism (of Hegel's philosophy) was the truth that the myth of the god-man embodied.

With regard specifically to the resurrection accounts, Strauss used arguments similar to those of Reimarus to demonstrate their unreliability. For example, if the body was embalmed and wrapped then why do the women return for this purpose? Was the body placed in the tomb because it was Joseph's or because it was near?[2] The story of the guard is improbable, and the inconsistencies in the empty tomb narrative are irreconcilable. As for the resurrection appearances, why should Jesus command the disciples to go to Galilee if he was going to appear to them in Jerusalem? And why did he command them to stay in Jerusalem if he was going to appear to them in Galilee? For such reasons, Strauss thought, no credence could be given to the Gospel stories of the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances.

Even more fundamentally, however, for Strauss the supernaturalist view was not disproved simply by the inconsistencies and the contradictions that Reimarus had noted, but rather it was ruled out a priori because of the presupposition of the impossibility of miracles. Any event that stood outside the unbreakable chain of finite causes was by definition mythological. A miraculous event was outside the domain of natural causes and therefore mythological by definition. The resurrection is a miraculous event, therefore the resurrection is mythological. It is simply ruled out of court by definition. The resurrection could not possibly be both a miraculous and a historical event because miraculous events are by definition mythological.

Despite this, Strauss admitted that Paul's challenge in 1 Corinthians 15 concerning living witnesses of the appearance of Jesus before the five hundred brethren makes it certain that there were people still alive at the time of Paul's writing who believed that they had seen Christ risen from the dead. So how is that to be explained? Well, certainly not by supernatural intervention because that is unenlightened. He says, “Hence, the cultivated intellect of the present day has very decidedly stated the following dilemma: either Jesus was not really dead, or he did not really rise again.”[3] But the view that Jesus was not really dead is the old apparent death theory of Paulus – of the rationalists – and therefore is not a plausible alternative. Therefore it follows that Jesus did not rise from the dead. The correct explanation of the appearances is to be found by examining the appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road. His experience on the Damascus Road makes it clear that the appearances were not external to the mind. Rather what happened is that the disciples convinced that Jesus was the Messiah began to search the Old Testament scriptures after his death and there they found the dying and rising Messiah of Isaiah 53. So the only conclusion was that Jesus must be alive – he must be risen from the dead. Soon they would see him, especially the women. Having then hallucinated appearances of Christ they would naturally infer that his grave must have been empty. By the time they returned from Galilee to Jerusalem (which was certainly not as early as Pentecost) there was no occupied tomb to refute them in that belief about Jesus' resurrection. And so in this way the belief in Jesus' resurrection originated and eventually years later the legendary Gospel accounts arose and came to be written down.

The position of the very preeminent New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann in the 20th century is not significantly different from the view of Strauss with regard to the resurrection of Jesus – this is an event that is unhistorical, it's mythological, and any truth embodied in it must be found by the process of demythologizing (stripping away the mythological elements to discover the spiritual truth embodied in this delusion).[4]

Someone remarked to me the last time we were together, Why do we have to study all of these anti-Christian heretical theories? Perhaps you find this not very edifying. I think this illustrates why. The defender of the resurrection of Jesus today can no longer argue against conspiracy theories about who stole the body or was Jesus really dead? Those are no longer the issue. Apologetics motivated by the question, Who moved the stone? - trying to show that the disciples didn't steal the body or that Jesus was really dead – are today outmoded in light of Strauss's criticism. By the same token, the attacks on the resurrection by Internet infidels that are still propounding conspiracy and the apparent death theories are just as much out of date and obsolete. They are two hundred years behind the times and do not realize that these theories have been abandoned by scholars today. But by reviewing the history of thought on these subjects we can see what the relevant contemporary issues are for the believer in the resurrection of Jesus today. It will be the challenge issued by Strauss to show that the events described in the Gospels concerning the fate of Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion have a historical credibility and a good claim to historical reliability. So the issue is: are the Gospel narratives of the fate of Jesus of Nazareth credible accounts historically or are they just unhistorical legends?

I'm sure you have critical objections to raise, but we'll get to those later. What we want to look at now is just any comprehension type question about Strauss' views.


Student: I think you might have touched on this very briefly but I didn't quite catch it. Did Strauss acknowledge that there was an empty tomb? Or did he deny that there was an empty tomb?

Dr. Craig: He would not have believed in the historicity of the empty tomb or, I suspect, even the burial account of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea because if the burial story is reliable then the site of the grave would be known in Jerusalem. He thinks by the time the disciples came back to Jerusalem there was no grave to be found, no body, no one knew what had happened to Jesus. You raise an important point that we'll talk about later, namely a denial of the historicity of, say, the resurrection is also going to imply, I think, the denial of the historicity of some very mundane, non-supernatural facts about Jesus like his burial by Joseph of Arimathea in the tomb. And you cannot disqualify that on grounds of supernaturalism because there's nothing supernatural about the burial of Jesus. Yet the skeptics have to deny that fact which, I think, puts them in a somewhat awkward position as we will see.

Student: How does he explain why the Jewish nation didn't produce the body?

Dr. Craig: I don't know for sure unless it would be that he doesn't even think that they knew. It could well be the case that he thought they were content to let the Romans dispose of the bodies. Remember they were crucified under Roman authority, and it may well be the case that he thought that they discarded the corpses. But I'm not sure what he would say in response to that.

Student: If the disciples are proclaiming that Christ arose and witnessed it, why didn't they just produce the body?

Dr. Craig: I think he would say (and this is plausible) that it was much later that they came back to Jerusalem and there wasn't any body to be found. They didn't know what had happened to the body of Jesus. That was my remark to the earlier question. So there wasn't any sort of corpse to refute them when they said that he is risen from the dead. And that's why a linchpin of a defense of the resurrection of Jesus I believe is going to be the burial account. I think that the historicity of the burial account just emerges front-and-center in discussing the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.


Let's move on to another more contemporary theory, and that is the subjective vision theory or hallucination theory.[5] This view is not essentially different from Strauss, but it does have some different flavoring on the contemporary scene.

The most prominent defender of the view that the resurrection appearances were simply subjective visions is the German New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann. Lüdemann realizes that treating the resurrection appearances of Jesus as hallucinations on the part of the disciples is going to require him to deny the empty tomb and the burial of Jesus, as we've just said. So Lüdemann attacks those narratives as being late and legendary. He does not think that the stories of the burial of Jesus and the empty tomb have early, historically credible traditions behind them. Rather these are late developing legends. His main contribution is to try to explain the resurrection appearances psychologically, and in this respect he makes an advance over Strauss. He tries to make the hallucination hypothesis plausible by doing a psychoanalysis of Peter and Paul. He thinks that both Peter and Paul labored under guilt complexes which found release by projecting subjective visions of Jesus. Peter had denied his Lord three times and was crushed by this betrayal. So back in Galilee, in order to come to grips with the terrible guilt that he felt for having betrayed Jesus, Peter projected a hallucination of Jesus and came to believe that he was risen from the dead. What about Paul? Well, he thinks that Paul had a secret attraction to Christianity and that's why he was so vociferous in his persecution of the early church. It was a matter of overreaction. Deep inside of him he had a struggle with his guilt under the law. Lüdemann interprets Romans 7 – Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? – as Paul's own guilt complex about his failure to live up to the demands of the Jewish law, and there was a secret attraction to Jesus and the forgiveness that he offered. This finally broke into consciousness on the road to Damascus where he projected a hallucination of Jesus, and he then became a follower of Jesus because it relieved the guilt complex under which he suffered under the Jewish law because of its extraordinary demands.

In Lüdemann's belief, the resurrection of Jesus is simply a delusion, has no historical credibility, and it's based in these hallucinations brought on by guilt.


Student: Could these hallucinations have led to the myths that would have developed under the mythological theory? I guess what I'm getting at is what's the primary difference regardless of whether what drove the mythology . . . ?

Dr. Craig: Here's the two differences I see between Strauss and Lüdemann. Strauss emphasized mythology more – that the traditions or the stories about Jesus became overlaid with mythology, particularly Greco-Roman myths about divine men like Hercules who were born of a human mother and a divine god and so were these sort of god-men. He thinks that these pagan myths came to influence the stories about Jesus so that Jesus becomes a similar divine-human figure who is risen from the dead. You don't have that in Lüdemann. I think he recognizes that the hypothesis of the influence of Greco-Roman mythology is incorrect, it's now outmoded, and so that doesn't play a big role. Instead, for him, the emphasis will be on psychoanalysis, and that isn't in Strauss. But in Lüdemann you have an appeal to the depth psychology (of all things) of Carl Jung in an attempt to explain the resurrection appearances in terms of Jung's depth psychology and the guild complexes under which Peter and Paul both suffered.[6] So those would be the main differences, but the end result is pretty much the same. The appearances are hallucinatory, and the empty tomb is a legend.

Student: So Matthew and John have the same visions also, right?

Dr. Craig: You mean in the sense that he appeared to the Twelve?

Student: In the sense they were deluded also somehow by . . . did he just discount their Gospels?

Dr. Craig: Let's remember that for these thinkers the Gospels were not written by their received authors. These names are probably incorrect. The Gospels were written much, much later by authors whom we don't know, and one needn't say that they were insincere or liars or anything of that sort. Rather simply that the traditions that they had received about Jesus were now so legendary that the original facts were no longer recoverable and so they wrote down these stories in the Gospels which have no historical credibility to them. But I think for Lüdemann the appearances to Peter and Paul are really primitive. I mean we've got Paul's own first-hand letters where he refers to the appearance that he saw. So that's clearly historical that he had an experience. Then the appearance to Peter is very well-established historically. In fact Lüdemann says it is historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which they saw Jesus as the risen Christ. That is a very strong statement to say it is historically certain that Peter and the disciples had these experiences. So he doesn't deny that they had these experiences, but he will interpret them as merely subjective visions.

Student: In regards to Lüdemann, I know you debated him a couple of times fifteen years ago or so. It just seems like it's so far out there from the mainstream. Is his line of reasoning still more accepted by the liberal side of theologians or has he been kind of discounted at well?

Dr. Craig: His depth psychological analysis, I think, is accepted by no one. His attempt to analyze the reason for the visions in these guilt complexes is, I think, fanciful and widely rejected. But given the historicity of these experiences, which even Lüdemann accepts and Strauss accepted, you can't deny that there were these experiences of seeing Jesus alive. It seems to me that all you've got left is some kind of psychological explanation if it didn't really happen. So in that sense his hypothesis is still very much alive. If you deny that these appearances were genuine sightings of Jesus risen from the dead then you pretty much got to explain them away psychologically.

Student: As far as the subjective and maybe even the objective vision theory also, do the people that hold this view point to another historical event that's made up? Like Joan of Arc or something like that?

Dr. Craig: They could but for Lüdemann it's the appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road. We have here the key he thinks to unlock what the resurrection appearances were. When you look at Paul's experience on the Damascus Road he would say it's evident that it was a subjective vision. If you let that model then control the other appearances, they must have been subjective visions, too, and the physicality of these stories is the later legendary accretions that have attached themselves to these original subjective visions. So you're absolutely right. And Lüdemann recognizes this. If his analysis of Paul's experience and its being normative (especially for the others) collapses then his whole theory collapses. It is based fundamentally upon taking Paul's experience to be normative historically for these other experiences.

Student: So how does he get around that the disciples saw the exact same hallucination at the same time?[7]

Dr. Craig: This is a real good question, the question of group hallucinations. Mike Licona has written quite a bit on this – that there really are no such things as group hallucinations because a hallucination is a projection of your mind and therefore it is purely private. What can happen would be that several people would simultaneously project private illusions. I have read stories of experiences where people see a statue of Mary move her hand, and apparently several people had this experience at the same time. It wouldn't be a shared hallucination but it would be simultaneously hallucinating the same thing. So the defender of the subjective vision theory could try to maintain that that's the case here, though the groups involved, I think, far outstrip what we have in the psychological case books for these sorts of group experiences. But you're raising a very good point.


Let me hurry on to the objective vision theory. In order to understand this theory we need to differentiate between a subjective and objective vision. A subjective vision is a private experience. It is a projection of the contents of consciousness and a seeing of something that is a projection of your own mind. By contrast, an objective vision would not be something that is self-generated. It would be a vision that God has given you where you would see something that would be visionary (people around you wouldn't see it) but it would be objective in the sense that it's not just a projection of your own mind, rather it's caused by God. In 1956 the Marburg theologian Hans Grass in his book Easter Events and Easter Report subjected the resurrection to historical inquiry and he concluded that the resurrection appearances cannot be dismissed as mere subjective visions. Rather, he held that they were objective visionary events. They were not just projections of consciousness of the individual disciples. Rather these were seeings of Jesus in a kind of visionary way that was objective. Perhaps one of the most important proponents of this objective vision view would be the man under whom I did my doctoral work in Germany, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg agrees with Grass that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were objective visions which God caused the disciples to have of the risen Lord. But unlike Grass he also affirms the empty tomb. Grass had denied the historicity of the empty tomb but said that God gave the disciples visions of Jesus in his glory and his exalted and risen state. But Pannenberg says that the belief in Jesus' resurrection could not have been possible in Jerusalem in the face of an occupied tomb. Therefore the tomb had to be empty by the time the disciples began to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. So Pannenberg combines belief in the historicity of the empty tomb with these objective visions of Jesus.

Student: If we have God giving visions of the risen Jesus to the disciples, why dismiss the actual resurrection? What do you gain there?

Dr. Craig: Very perceptive question. This is a supernatural hypothesis, isn't it? God accorded to the disciples these objective visions of Jesus rather like the vision of Stephen of the Son of Man at the time of his martyrdom. He saw a vision of the Son of Man standing in heaven, a vision given to him by God. Why then deny the materiality and physicality? I think the reason is because these would be nature miracles.[8] They would involve the intervention of a supernatural power in this unbreakable chain of finite physical causes. Modern theology, as children of the Enlightenment, just will not have nature miracles. So they're willing to admit these sort of psychological miracles like objective visions of Jesus, even the empty tomb in Pannenberg's case which is pretty miraculous, but they don't want to have a physical, bodily resurrection.


Let's conclude our survey by looking at one last theory which I have labeled the interpretation theory. I don't know what else to call this. This theory is associated with a German theologian named Willi Marxsen and then in our country with the notorious Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong. What proponents of this view say is that something definitely happened to transform the disciples from cowering defeated people into bold proclaimers of the resurrection of Jesus. They were willing to go to their deaths for the truth of the message they proclaimed. Something very, very powerful must have happened to them. But they would say we don't know what it is, and the disciples themselves didn't really know what it was either but they latched onto this interpretive category in Jewish thinking of the resurrection of the dead in order to describe their experience for lack of any better term. So this is just an interpretive category that they used to describe their experience, and it shouldn't be taken too literally. For example, Spong, in his book The Easter Moment, says “something big and powerful” actually happened to produce this change. In fact, Spong's treatment of this issue is one of the best I've ever read in terms of the change wrought in these first disciples. He points out that the lives of both Jesus' disciples and his family members as well was radically transformed. He notes that Sunday became the new holy day instead of the Jewish Sabbath. That God was re-conceived to be not just one person but to be a triad of persons that included Christ – the Trinity. That the content of the Gospel message became Jesus himself. Rather than Jesus as the proclaimer or herald of the Gospel, Jesus became the subject of the Gospel. That Jerusalem became the center of the Christian faith, and the leading members of the anti-Christian religious establishment like Paul became followers of Christ. All of these historical facts, he says, cry out for some sort of adequate explanation, something big, something powerful, that happened to bring about these incredible changes. He says, “All of this is historical data . . . that begs for an adequate” explanation.[9] So he says what must have happened is that Peter went back to Galilee and he had a vision of Jesus while in Galilee, and he interpreted this in terms of the typical Jewish category of resurrection from the dead. So they began to preach “he is risen from the dead” as a kind of interpretation of this life-changing experience that they had had. It is basically a kind of agnostic view. We don't know what happened. It was big. It was powerful. We don't know what happened, but the category of resurrection was imposed upon it for want of a better explanation.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Spong? I don't like to make pronouncements on people's own personal relationship with the Lord, but he doesn't believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. And in conversation with us after our debate he said to us, Really, I'm just a mystic. So he would characterize himself as a mystic rather than a Christian.[10]


Having surveyed these alternative views of the resurrection of Jesus, what we want to do next time is to examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and see what is the best of these several competing explanations.[11]


[1]          David Friedrich Strauss, “Herrmann Samuel Reimarus and His ‘Apology,’” in Fragments, pp. 280-1.

[2]          5:02

[3]          Ibid., p. 736.

[4]          10:02

[5]          15:00

[6]          20:05

[7]          25:05

[8]          30:00

[9]          John Shelby Spong, The Easter Moment (New York:  Seabury Press, 1980), p. 91.

[10]        35:00

[11]        Total Running Time: 35:52 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)