The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead
By Phillip H. Wiebe
Former Anglican Primate of Australia, Peter Carnley, sums up the significance of the Resurrection in the words: “It is the resurrection which is the foundation of the Church, its worship and its theology, for the Church gathers not just around the rehearsal of the story of the incarnation of God, but around the perceived presence of the raised Christ himself.”1 This remark conveys the importance of the Ancient creedal claim that Jesus “rose again from the dead.” An evident import of it is that a corpse came back to life, which brings Christian faith into sharp conflict with all Modern sensibilities. Charles Taylor aptly remarks in his Gifford lectures for 1998-99, “ Why is it so hard to believe in God in (many milieux of ) the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?”2 C. S. Lewis describes the Medieval (spiritual) view of the universe in The Discarded Image (1964), which, he says, is not wholly true, but is not mere fantasy either.3 Successfully advancing the Resurrection of Jesus today means that naturalism has not succeeded in snuffing out the Light from Antiquity.
Professor John Hick, who taught at the Universities of Cornell, Princeton, and Cambridge, and held chairs at Claremont Graduate University (US) and The University of Birmingham (UK), asserts that two examples of resurrections can be found in Hinduism from the last one hundred years: Sri Yukteswar is said to have appeared after his death (in 1936) to Paramahans Yogananda in Bombay (Mumbai), and Sri Yukteswar is said to have seen his already dead guru in 1895.4 Hick’s claim would be spectacular if it were true, and would allow Hinduism to rival Christianity on its central tenet. However, Hick is surely wrong to view these apparitions as sufficient evidence for resurrection, for we can legitimately ask if the bodies of the two gurus came back to life in ways that left causal effects on their corpses, or even on their immolated remains.
These (mistaken) examples from Hick indicate that claims to resurrection require evidence concerning several distinct matters: (a) that some person is indisputably dead; (b) that “someone” identical to the person who died is indisputably (seen to be) alive after having been dead, and (c) that person’s corpse no longer exists after coming back to life. These conditions are satisfied in the NT claim that Lazarus was brought back to life. The Resurrection of Jesus introduces a fourth isolatable factor, for he is said to have come to life in a body (d) that was immortal and beyond perishability (1 Corinthians 15), which has never been asserted of Lazarus. Exactly how this fourth factor might show up in evidence is somewhat obscure, but I will comment below.
Rudolph Bultmann, perhaps the most prominent theologian of the 20th century, spoke for many theologians and clergy when he remarked in a discussion with Swiss philosopher and psychiatrist, Karl Jaspers, “He [Jaspers] is as convinced as I am that a corpse cannot come back to life … [b]ut how am I, in my capacity as pastor, to explain … texts dealing with the Resurrection of Jesus in the flesh.” 5 Bultmann plausibly turned to existentialist theology to find some interpretation of the Bible for modern humanity. My framing of the issues here concerning the Resurrection is also existential, I suppose, for the competitors for my allegiance since the early 1960s have always been Naturalism and Christianity. Neither Buddhism, nor Islamism, nor Hinduism nor … [any religion] … were ever, for me, “live options,” in the famous words of William James. I enthusiastically embraced Bultmann’s theology when I first encountered him as a young undergraduate, and was convinced that I would never embrace Christianity’s then-unbelievable metaphysic.
We might understandably think that establishing that someone is dead would be a straightforward matter, but when an issue as provocative and far-reaching as resurrection is involved, every small point is contested in the most exhaustive manner imaginable. Some theologians of a century or more ago vigorously debated the possibility that Jesus was not dead when he was removed from the cross, but this stratagem for avoiding the claim that a corpse came back to life has virtually disappeared. The claim that Jesus actually died by crucifixion is now beyond doubt, with 1st century authors, both biblical and non-biblical, concurring on this point. NT expert Craig Evans writes: “The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are not merely theological ideas but actual events – actual events that awakened faith and later prompted theological inquiry.”6 The evidence for the other conditions is more tendentious.
One tires of hearing about the many difficulties in the NT surrounding the Resurrection, which include the following :
- Tradition has distinguished appearances of Jesus from visions of Jesus, with the Ascension serving as the event at which the appearances (physical encounters) stopped and the visions (subjective experiences) began. However, St. Matthew puts the Ascension in Galilee, whereas St. Luke puts it in Bethany (near Jerusalem) forty days after the Resurrection. Moreover, St. John implies that the Ascension occurred within the first eight days of the Resurrection.
- Paul’s list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 is devoid of details, so that it is virtually without value as evidence, especially to those attuned to scientific demands. Moreover, harmonizing the Gospels with one another, and also with Paul’s list, appears to be impossible, g., Paul identifies Peter as the first to whom Jesus appeared, but St. John identifies Mary Magdalene as first.
- The earliest gospel, St. Mark, has a disputed ending. A widely accepted short ending has no accounts of appearances at all, whereas a longer ending includes accounts of two appearances, one of which asserts that Jesus “appeared in a different form,” although it does not elaborate. The church has widely repudiated the claim that the resurrected form varied, so St. Mark is suspect in both of these endings.
- No gospel includes a description of Jesus. The only physical description of him in the NT is found in The Revelation, which is widely viewed as symbolic of a transcendent reality, not as a portrayal of how he appeared to his followers. Inasmuch as the identification of individuals depends primarily on how they appear, the failure of the NT authors to adduce details about the appearance of Jesus is mysterious.
- The Gospels mention something about doubts arising in those who saw Jesus, or that he was not recognized. For example, St. Matthew’s account of the Ascension says that his disciples worshipped him, but some doubted. The nature of this doubt is not elaborated, however. The claim that he was not always recognized, or that doubts accompanied perceptions, is more understandable if his form varied. The Gospels add curious mystery to the appearance accounts.
- The nature of the seeing involved, in reports that disciples had “seen the Lord,” is in dispute. 7 Some consider Paul’s own Damascus-road encounter to be a paradigm of all or most cases of the appearances, making them subjective visions.8 The more life- like appearance accounts in St. Luke, St. Matthew, and St. John are then seen as redactions of stories, to suppress Docetism or to enhance the divinity of Jesus.
- The twenty to fifty years that elapsed between reported events and the written accounts undermines the credibility of what was reported. We would dismiss any allegation today about a spectacular event whose only source was an oral tradition of more than two decades.
- The “ordinary” historical claims on which the NT writers can be successfully evaluated, e.g., the list of governors or rulers in St. Luke, seemingly provide little confirmatory value to the “extraordinary” events alleged. I have argued this point at some length elsewhere. 9 Some background on confirming evidence, on which I did my doctoral dissertation (University of Adelaide, 1973), is needed to complete the argument.
Other difficulties could be mentioned, which together suggest that the probability that a resurrection occurred is small. Some scholars disagree on the degree of probability, e.g., Richard Swinburne.10 I cannot see a straightforward solution to such epistemic differences, and offer as evidence for the plausibility of my position the fact that the Academy seems to agree with me, and has substantially abandoned Christianity
An extraordinary archaeological development relevant to the Resurrection has been uncovered in the last century. The Shroud of Turin has been taken out of obscurity and been brought to the attention of modern science. More than two dozen academic discipline areas are now involved in its study, which makes it a domain so large and formidable that no single person can be qualified in them all, given the complexity of each. Some discussions of the Shroud appear to be devoid of appropriate dispassionateness, and too eagerly construe the Image of the Man as created by “a burst of light” when Jesus was resurrected. Such imbalances can be corrected by examining published criticisms.11
The curious symmetry between the injuries that the Man of the Shroud sustained, featured in its bloodstains, and the NT descriptions of the Crucifixion of Jesus have understandably led to the conjecture that the Man is Jesus. The recent discovery that the Man is surrounded by floral images – not just pollen – from flowers native to Israel 12 further contributes to making this identification. Many other factors naturally enhance or diminish the probability of this conjecture, including the 1988 carbon-dating test that gave the Shroud a medieval date.
Increasing attention is being given to the arresting Image of the Man on the Shroud, which is quite independent of bloodstains evident on it. This Image is mysterious, for it is much clearer when we photograph it and view the negative produced (discovered in 1898). The Image also exhibits a plausible three-dimensionality to the Man’s body when the varying pixel-like colorations that form the Image are plotted as amounts of vertical relief (discovered in 1976). Most surprising of all, perhaps, the Shroud Image seems to have captured not simply the outer form of the Man, but also some portions of his skeletal structure, such as finger bones, teeth and their roots, orbit bones of eyes, a thumb folded into the palm, and perhaps more. This imaging is dramatically exhibited in the recent work of August Accetta, which also shows that the Shroud has properties we ordinarily see on film that has been bombarded with technesium-99. 13
One technical explanation for the Image, suggested by physicist John Jackson14 and developed by the Ernest Rutherford authority, Thaddeus Trenn15 opens up an extraordinary vista on evidence for any resurrection. Trenn suggests that some external form of energy caused the nuclei of the atoms forming the body of the Man to break apart, which Trenn describes as “weak dematerialization.” The Shroud is conjectured then to have passed through these freed neutrons and protons, producing the varying (reversed) shades of light and dark to form the Image, while the freed electrons attached themselves to flowers on the Man to produce the floral images. This conjecture would explain the pointillism of the Image, the faint images of body parts, and the three dimensional effect. Although this conjecture involves a single object, and might seem problematic, it is falsifiable, which makes it scientific according to Sir Karl Popper and many others, as is the Big Bang , also a single event. A test implication of the conjecture is that some of the freed neutrons (from nuclei) would collide with Nitrogen-14, which is plentiful in linen, and produce (new) Carbon-14, thus skewing its 1988 carbon-date. A (non-invasive) scan of the entire Shroud could be conducted to detect C-14 levels, by covering it with radiographic film and encasing these in two sheets of lead for 24 hours. If the C-14 levels were to be found to be similar across the Shroud, the conjecture has been falsified; on the other hand, if C-14 is greatest in the body area and lesser in the outer edges of the cloth, the conjecture about the image having been created by weak dematerialization (or some similar process) would receive significant supporting evidence as a novel test implication.
This conjecture elevates debate about the Resurrection by a quantum leap. I will highlight three points:
- If the Shroud image was formed by weak dematerialization, then it provides just the kind of evidence one needs for asserting that a body disappeared when no one was watching. An extraordinarily curious feature of the original resurrection claim is that no one seemingly observed it – whatever the Roman guards saw, if anything , was never preserved. We only have the empty tomb tradition(s). However, merely discovering several days after a burial that the body was not present in the tomb where it was placed, hardly serves to advance a resurrection claim. We also need post-mortem appearances, of course, but no resurrection claim can be advanced if we think that the bones of Jesus lie in some unmarked grave in the Judean hills (contra Ludemann). If the Shroud image is that in fact of Jesus of Nazareth, Christian faith has been given an immense evidential boost. On the other hand, if the medieval carbon-dating result of 1988 is correct, then the body of some unknown man has disappeared, and the Shroud reveals to Christian faith the evidence that it needs in a scientific age but does not have. Every human body eventually undergoes dissolution, but these events can be described at the level of atoms and molecules – as worms destroy our bodies, etc. However, the conjectured dissolution that is in evidence on the Shroud is subatomic, not atomic. Never before in the history of human thought has a sufficiently developed physics existed that could explain how someone disappeared and left a trace of himself.
- The conjectured energy needed to break the bonds holding atomic nuclei intact in the body of the Man would be immense. For an object weighing , say, eighty kilograms, which is his estimated weight, the “energy would be the equivalent of nearly thirty-six grams of matter converted by E=mc2 … energy nominally equivalent to about twenty-nine atomic bombs.”16 This energy would need to be added from an unknown source to the body of the Man, and it would need to exceed the strongest of the known natural forces – the strong nuclear force – which overpowers the repulsive force exerted in atomic nuclei by particles (protons) having the same charge.
- Some exceedingly fine discrimination in this conjectured dematerialization was made between the blood already deposited onto the cloth, g., at the wrist, and the blood immediately adjacent to it still in the body. The area of the blood deposit at the wrist exhibits no fraying of the cloth fibrils, where the cloth evidently touched the body and received a blood transfer. The body was likely not pulled out of the Shroud to be deposited elsewhere, but seemingly disappeared in a shower of subatomic particles, leaving blood already on the Shroud untouched.
The Shroud Image suggests the action of an extremely powerful Intelligence, acting with conspicuous intentionality and astonishing precision – the Most High God? The Shroud is not an innocuous bystander to the resurrection debate.
In the late spring of 1988 I began to examine experiences in which Christ himself seemingly appeared to living people – little did I know that my conversion from Bultmann had been initiated. My inter views of thirty (mostly ordinary) people were published in Visions of Jesus (1997), and include accounts of some people healed in their encounters, others in which people felt with their hands what they saw with their eyes, still others in which other successful reality checks were performed, also some for whom the radiance was so intense that only general features were seen, etc. I used a total of twenty-three variables in an effort to compare and contrast experiences. When we read the NT accounts of the immortalized Jesus through the lens of such experiences we will notice some startling incompleteness in NT descriptions, such as St. Paul’s list of witnesses. However, we also see that some of the features of the Gospel encounters with a “Being beyond the limits of time” are corroborated.
My conversion to historic Christian faith was substantially completed on the morning of August 26, 2000, when I sat in front of the Shroud. I had gone to Italy for a conference, and stopped in Turin to see the Shroud, primarily because I was lecturing on it and was embarrassed when people in my audiences would ask me if I had actually seen it and I had to admit that I had not. Another reason was because the Shroud had then been on exhibit, on average, only every 25 or 30 years, so many people had only one or two chances in their lifetime to see it. The Cathedral of St John the Baptist was unusually free of visitors that year, and as I sat and surveyed the Man’s blood, which was just everywhere on the Shroud, a firm “inner voice” spoke to me in the words, “The Resurrection’s real, Phillip” – my full Christian name was used, with a bit of a lilt at the end that conveyed friendliness.
The Shroud suggests that the weight often given to the NT in trying to render the Resurrection plausible is more than texts alone can bear. However, the Christ has arguably also left behind not only a Church, but also a legacy of peculiar visionary encounters found in every century of the last two millennia, as well as the Shroud of Turin, to assure us that the search for him is actually worth our time and effort. This unusual and existential search is not quite like a straightforward scientific study that anyone can undertake with a casual outlook on the subject. Rather, it is one that is designed to disclose the biblical truth that Jesus, the Christ, is God Incarnate.
About the Author
PHILLIP H. WIEBE, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, Canada. He is also Chair of the Research Ethics Board and a well published author.
1 Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 8.
2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 539.
3 C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 222.
4 See Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion 1993, 42; see also ParamhansaYogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi 1946.
5 Rudolf Bultmann, Myth and Christianity (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux,1958), 60.
6 Craig Evans, Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), Chap. 1.
7 See Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1994).
8 See Wolfhart Pannenberg , Jesus – Man and God (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1968).
9 Phillip Wiebe, “Authenticating Biblical Reports of Miracles,” in Larmer, Questions of Miracle, 1996.
10 Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chap. 8.
12 See Avinoam Danin, Botany of the Shroud ( Jerusalem: Danin Publishing , 2010).
13 August Accetta MD, Kenneth Lyons MD, John Jackson PhD “Nuclear Medicine and its Relevance to the Shroud of Turin,” 2014, http://www.shroud.com/pdfs/accett2.pdf
14 See John Jackson, “An Unconventional Hypothesis to Explain all Image Characteristics Found on the Shroud Image,” in Berard, A ., ed., History, Science, Theology and the Shroud, Symposium Proceeding s, St. Louis Missouri, June 22-23, 1991, (Amarillo, T X : The Man in the Shroud Committee of Amarillo, 1991), 325-344.
15 See Thaddeus Treen, “ The Shroud of Turin : Resetting the Carbon-14 Clock,” in Jitse M. vander Meer, ed., Facets of Faith and Science (Lanham, Maryland : University Press of America , 1996), 119-33.
[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]