Rethinking Jesus (11) Raised from the dead?

No one can definitively prove, or disprove, that Jesus was raised from the dead. It’s a matter of personal belief, not historical fact. To me, without doubt, some of his followers believed they’d seen him alive again, otherwise he’d most likely have disappeared into the small print of history. Socrates said “an unexamined life is not worth living”, and it does seem to me that an unexamined belief is not worth having. So here are two things that I think are worthy of ‘examination’.

Firstly, let’s look at the ‘evidence’ in the Gospels. Too often we only read them ’vertically’ and consecutively, and so fail to pick up on innumerable inconsistencies and contradictions. If we lay them side by side, and read them ‘horizontally’, such differences immediately become clear. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. Depending on which Gospel you read …

How many women went to Jesus’ tomb? Either 1, or 2, or 3. What did these 1, 2, or 3 women see? Either guards felled by an earthquake and an angel rolling away the stone, or the stone already rolled away. Whom did they see? Either a young man in a white robe inside the tomb, or two men in gleaming clothes. Where did the disciples see Jesus? Either in Galilee, or in Jerusalem, from both of which he went off into heaven. What kind of body had Jesus? Either one which couldn’t be touched, or one that could be and was, and either one as solid as flesh and bones, or one that could appear and disappear and pass through walls. If this were to be scrutinised in a court of enquiry, the ‘prosecution’ lawyers would have a field day, shredding the ‘evidence’ to pieces. This doesn’t disprove Jesus’ resurrection, but it reinforces, I think, my point that an unexamined belief is not worth having. 

Secondly, let’s examine what it means ‘to see’. You and I don’t gaze out through the ‘windows’ of our eyes. Electromagnetic radiation from outside stimulates our retinas, which transmit impulses that trigger wide-spread electro-chemical processing across the brain, which individually analyses and collectively constructs a mental representation which we experience as ‘seeing’. It’s no wonder we sometimes get things wrong, and must ‘look’ again to get things right. 

In addition, the brain does some associated processing, using data previously stored away. The interpretation of what’s come in through our eyes is augmented and altered by these ‘feed back loops’. A simple example is ‘seeing’ what’s written on a piece of paper, and then being told we’re mistaken. We take a second look, and now ‘see’ a repeated word. Why didn’t we ‘see’ that the first time? Our brains have a data store on how our language works. A feedback loop ‘saw’ what ought to have been written, not what actually was written. Once it’s pointed out, we ‘see’ the mistake we made.

When some people ‘saw’ Jesus alive again, the plain fact is that, either electro-magnetic radiation entered their eyes, or already stored data was for some reason internally stimulated, or both – and the result was a mental image experienced as ‘seeing’. Whether what was ‘seen’ accurately corresponded to what was present cannot be determined by you or me. We can only entertain a belief, one way or another.

It’s a fact of human experience that a significant percentage of people ‘see’ loved ones who’ve died, sometimes in surprising detail. They have, of course, lots of details stored in memory banks in their brains. Throughout history, innumerable people have seen ghosts, angels, virgin Marys, flying saucers, and so on. What we need to be careful about is accepting ‘seeings’ which suit us, while dismissing others which don’t. Jesus’ followers desperately wanted him still to be alive. Perhaps their brains obliged.

This isn’t to say whether on not Jesus was resurrected. I don’t know, any more than you. The issues I’ve outlined are among the reasons why I don’t believe that he was, but this doesn’t matter to me. I read in the Gospels most days and, when I’ve read a story, I close the book and recreate in it my mind’s eye. I ‘see’ and ‘hear’ what’s happening and being said, and allow whatever insights that generates to come to mind. For me, Jesus is very much alive and, I would say, as alive as I need him to be. You are free to ‘see’ things differently.

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