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Jesus' resurrection

Alternative beliefs by some liberal & mainline Christians, secularists, etc.

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There is a near consensus among liberal, and some mainline theologians, that:

  • The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by Jesus' disciples but by person or persons whose names are unknown.
  • Neither Paul nor any of the Gospel writers had been an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry, execution, or after-death appearances.
  • The Gospels record the beliefs and memories of various Christian groups as they had evolved at the time they were written.
  • God did not directly inspire the authors of the Bible. Instead, the writers composed text in support of their personal beliefs and those of their faith group. In particular, the Gospels contain various passages of religious myths which describe Christian traditions which were invented after Jesus' death.
  • The Bible is not inerrant. Many passages in the Gospels and Epistles of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) contain religious propaganda, beliefs unique to the author and his/her faith group, words created by the authors and attributed to Jesus, stories of events that never happened, material picked up from surrounding Pagan cultures, etc.

Liberals compare Bible passages in the light of contemporary Jewish, Pagan and non-canonical Christian writings. They also study the culture of the time and the beliefs of surrounding Pagan societies. Of particular interest are the evolving beliefs of the followers of Christ during the approximately seven decades between the crucifixion and the completion of the last Gospel, John. They have come to very different  conclusions about the resurrection.

What many liberal theologians believe about Jesus' death:

Many liberal and some mainline Christian leaders believe that Jesus died during the crucifixion, did not resurrect himself, and was not bodily resurrected by God. At his death, his mind ceased to function and his body started the decomposition process. Returning to life a day and a half later would have been quite impossible. The story of having been wrapped in linen and anointed with myrrh seems to have been copied from the story of the death of Osiris -- the Egyptian God of the earth, vegetation and grain. The legend that he visited the underworld between his death and resurrection was simply copied from common Pagan themes of surrounding cultures. One example again was Osiris. "With his original association to agriculture, his death and resurrection were seen as symbolic of the annual death and re-growth of the crops and the yearly flooding of the Nile." 1

They also believe that Paul regarded the resurrection to be an act of God in which Jesus was a passive recipient of God's power. Paul did not mention the empty tomb, the visit by a woman or women, the stone, the angel/angels/man/men at the tomb, and reunion of Jesus with his followers in his resuscitated body. Rather, he believed that Jesus was taken up into heaven in a spirit body. It was only later, from about 70 to 110 CE when the four canonic Gospels were written, that the Christians believed that Jesus rose from the grave in his original body, and by his own power.

Later, perhaps after Paul's death, there was great disappointment within the Christian communities because Jesus had not returned as expected. They diverted their focus of attention away from Jesus' second coming. They studied his life and death more intensely. Legends without a historical basis were created by the early church; these included the empty tomb and described Jesus returning in his original body to eat and talk with his followers.

In previous centuries, almost all Christians believed in miracles as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). These included creation, the story of Adam and Eve, a talking serpent, the great flood of Noah, the drying up of the Red/Reed sea, a prophet riding on a talking ass, the sun stopping in the sky, etc. From the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), they believed in the virgin birth, the Christmas star, angels appearing to the shepherds, Jesus healing the sick, etc. Many, perhaps most, liberal Christians now believe that these stories are not to be interpreted literally as real events. Their faith has not been damaged by losing faith in the reality of these events. A growing number of liberals are now taking the final step by interpreting the stories of Jesus' resurrection and his appearances to his followers and to Paul as other than real events. Retired bishop John Shelby Spong commented:

"I do admit that for Christians to enter this subject honestly is to invite great anxiety. It is to walk the razor's edge, to run the risk of cutting the final cord still binding many to the faith of their mothers and fathers. But the price for refusing to enter this consideration is for me even higher. The inability to question reveals that one has no confidence that one's belief system will survive such an inquiry. That is a tacit recognition that on unconscious levels, one's faith has already died. If one seeks to protect God from truth or new insights, then God has surely already died." 3

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How some liberals believe that the resurrection story evolved:

It is unfortunate that the Christian Scriptures are arranged in the order Matthew to Revelation. Some publisher would do a great service to humanity by publishing a New Testament in which the books are re-arranged in chronological order by the date in which they were written: i.e. I Thessalonians would be the first book. It would be followed by other epistles and gospels, perhaps in the order: Revelation, John, Jude, II Peter, Mark, Matthew, Luke, Acts, Hebrews,. Last would be group of Pastoral Epistles attributed to Paul but which were written decades after his death in the 2nd century CE. There is much debate among theologians about the absolute dates of each of these books. There is greater agreement of the probable sequence in which they were written. A New Testament in chronological order would help the reader understand the development through time of various Christian beliefs, including that of the resurrection.

Consider the following time line; dates are approximate:

  • 30 CE: The approximate year of Jesus' execution by the Romans.
  • 50 CE: For two decades, the words and acts of Jesus and his followers had been transmitted orally. Nothing seems to have been written down before this date. One or more members of one group of Jesus' followers write the first draft of the Gospel of Q. The author(s) do not mention the resurrection. This may well have been because they were unaware of the event. It could be argued that it was not important to then and that they wanted to concentrate mainly on Jesus' teachings.

    Paul wrote I Thessalonians. The main thrust of his letter deals with the second coming of Jesus which he expected would occur at any time. But he mentions the resurrection in two passages:

    • I Thess. 1:10: He describes God as having been responsible for raising Jesus "from the dead."
    • I Thess. 4:14: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will also bring with him through Jesus those who have fallen asleep [in death]" (Amplified Bible)

    His message was that God raised Jesus from the dead and will do the same thing for others.

  • 55 to 65 CE: Paul writes a series of letters to churches in various cities. In I Corinthians 15:3-8" he says "...I [Paul] passed on to you...that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time,...then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me..." Paul used the phrase "he was raised" As Bishop Spong has written:

    "...the power of resurrection resided with God. God was the initiator...Jesus was the recipient, the one acted upon. Paul never used anything but the passive verb to discuss the Easter event and he used that form 37 times. For Paul, Jesus was raised by God. Jesus did not rise." 2

    To Paul, Jesus was not restored to life in his original body in order to walk around and talk to his followers. Rather, Jesus was raised from death into the presence of God in a spiritual body. As he writes in I Corinthians 15:50 Paul believed: "...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."

    Paul seems to be unaware of the empty tomb, of the bodily resurrection, of the visitation by one or more women, and other details of the resurrection story as was written later in the gospels. It is also doubtful that the story was known by other Christians at that time. It is probable that the account was created after Paul's death.

    It is also doubtful that Jesus appeared to a crowd of more than 500. A dead man talking to a group would be such a miraculous event that word of it would spread very widely. The incident would have been recorded by other Christian authors and also by non-Christian historians of the time. No other trace of the group of 500 exists.

  • 64 CE: This is the approximate date when Paul was executed by the Romans.
  • 70 CE: The Jerusalem Temple, the center of Judaism, and the city itself was destroyed by the Roman Army. Many Jews were driven from Palestine and dispersed.
  • 73 CE: At about this time, an unidentified author wrote the first of the gospels which made it into the official canon: the Gospel of Mark. By this time, a legend had grown up which added to people's beliefs about Jesus' death and resurrection. It consisted of a series of images which together made a bare-bones account of the events: Jesus' last words; the temple veil, the comment by a centurion; the watching women; Joseph of Arimathea obtaining the body; the tomb and its stone; visitation by some women; the young man in the white robe, and the women fleeing from the tomb, telling nobody of their experience. The cave and its stone was probably a Midrash echo of Joshua, Chapter 10.

    Perhaps the most important component of these 22 verses is the simple phrase in Mark 16:6: "...He is risen!..." Mark contradicted Paul's concept that Jesus was raised by God. Mark writes that Jesus has raised himself!

    The gospel has one major deficiency: its ending leaves a reader hanging. The young man has told the women to go to the disciples and tell them that Jesus will wait for them in Galilee. But they ran away and didn't tell anyone. So, we do not know if the meeting actually took place.

  • 83 CE: At about this time, another unidentified author wrote the Gospel of Matthew, using the text of Mark as a foundation. "Matthew" augmented Mark's account of the resurrection. He added some new story elements that he picked up from accounts circulating in the early 80's. These included: the earthquake at the time of Jesus' death, the tombs breaking open and the holy people returning to life.

    By this time, over 50 years after the crucifixion, there was a serious conflict between the Christian movements and the Jewish authorities. The Jews believed that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body in order to falsely claim that he had risen from the dead. To counter this argument, Matthew apparently added verses 27:63-6 and 28:11-15.

    Mark's young man in a white robe became an angel with the appearance of lightning. The confused women became women who were afraid yet filled with joy. The angel told the women that Jesus "is not here; he has risen, just as he said..." (Matthew 28:6). They were instructed to tell the brethren that "He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee." The brethren went there, and Jesus gave them the Great Commission. The seal on the stone and presence of the guards may be a Midrash link back to Daniel 6:17. The shining angel and trembling guards may be a link to Daniel 10:4-10.

    Matthew added the first Biblical passage to be written which describes Jesus in his original body talking to believers. The women recognized him, and "clasped his feet"; he spoke to them. Matthew is explaining that Jesus appeared in a physical form - his original human body. The break from Paul's belief of a spirit body which Mark stated is here confirmed by Matthew.

  • 90 CE: An unidentified author wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts at about this time. The resurrection story had expanded by this time to include grave clothes; one man had become two; Jesus met Cleopas and a friend on the road to Emmaus; Jesus had a meal with them and then disappeared; Jesus appears to the disciples "and those with them and proves to them that he has a real body; he ate some fish, and preached to them. Finally, he took them to Bethany, blessed them, and ascended into heaven. (The meals of course would be proof-positive that Jesus was in a real, human body; ghosts don't eat.)

    The NIV translation of the Bible appears to contain a error. Verse Luke 24:7 reads "The Son of Man raised again. Describing Jesus as having to "be raised" would be a throwback to Paul's belief that Jesus was passively raised by God - an unlikely event. The Amplified Bible, King James Version, Living Bible, Modern Language Bible, New American Bible, New American Standard Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and Reims New Testament all have Jesus "rise" from the dead. The NIV translation of this verse is incompatible with the rest of the gospels and should probably be ignored.

  • Approximately 100 CE: An unidentified author or group of authors wrote the Gospel of John over an extended interval of time. The author(s) add still more details to the resurrection story: the two men have become two angels; Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after the disciples have left the empty tomb; the "doubting Thomas" story is included; Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias and the miraculous catch of fish; Peter is reinstated to a position of authority.

One interpretation of the resurrection story concludes that the earliest followers of Jesus knew nothing about the resurrection. Paul believed that Jesus had a passive role in his resurrection. He was raised by God into heaven, housed in a spirit body. His physical body rotted. The story of the tomb, its stone, the angels, men and women at the tomb, of Jesus meeting, talking and eating with his followers, etc. is a myth, a legend created by various Christian movements many decades after Jesus' execution. That saga became captured in the four canonical gospels at different stages in its development.

The early belief, that Jesus was raised in a spirit body, blends with the later myth that Jesus rose himself, in his original body. Echoes of both beliefs are seen in the gospels:

  • References to His Spirit Resurrection: Some Gospel passages imply that he was housed in a spirit body. The Gospel authors might have been influenced by Gnostic Christian beliefs:
    • Luke 24:31: Jesus suddenly disappeared from sight.
    • Luke 24:37: The disciples thought that he was a ghost.
    • John 20:17: Jesus cautioned Mary Magdelene not to hold on to him because he had not yet returned to the Father.
    • John 20:19-26: On two occasions, a week apart, Jesus suddenly appears with the disciples in a locked room, apparently by walking through the walls or closed door.
  • References to his Bodily Resurrection: Other passages in the gospels emphasize Jesus physical body, his ability to speak and to eat:
    • Matthew 28:9: Jesus is described as speaking; two women clasped his feet.
    • Luke 24:15: Jesus meets two disciples; he walks and eats bread with them.
    • Luke 24:15: Jesus shows his disciples the wounds in his hands and feet. Then he ate some fish, perhaps to emphasize that he was in his human body.
    • Luke 24:50: Jesus raised his hands and blessed them. Then he was taken up into heaven
    • John 20:20-27: Jesus twice shows his disciples his injured hands and side.
    • John 21:12-13: The disciples ate breakfast with Jesus.
  • Odd References to Jesus' Appearance: There are also strange references to Jesus' after his resurrection which seem to indicate that he did appear in a human body that was not his original body. Although his followers had spent either one year (as stated in the synoptic gospels) or 3 years (as described in John) in close contact with Jesus during their travels, they did not recognize him when they saw him after his resurrection:
    • Luke 24:31: Two of his followers walked and talked with Jesus, perhaps for hours. But they did not recognize him.
    • John 20:15: Mary Magdalene saw and talked to Jesus, but thought that he was the gardener.
    • John 21:4: The disciples did not recognize Jesus on the sea shore.


  1. "Osiris," at:

  2. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection, Myth or Reality? A Bishops Search for the Origins of Christianity", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1994) Page 50 .

  3. John Shelby Spong, "The Easter Moment: What Really Happened? Is the literal claim of Easter still believable?  Can Christianity afford to debate its originating moment?," at:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2008, by Ontario Consultant on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2008-OCT-05
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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