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Questions on the Resurrection and My Personal Spiritual Experiences: Readers’ Mailbag

I’ll address two questions on this week’s readers’ mailbag, one about what we can say about the resurrection of Jesus (a specific question about it) and one about whether my (one-time) faith was based on the Bible or on spiritual experiences I had.  (The answer is apparently not what the questioner expected.)

 

QUESTION:

How do you separate the fact from fiction on the risen Jesus?  You accept, as historical, that the disciples believed they had visions of the risen Jesus – so how do you reject, as legendary, the physical interactions with the risen Jesus as they are drawn from the same accounts?
RESPONSE:

Ah, this is a good question: it gets to the heart of what it means to engage in a historical analysis of our early Christian traditions.  Each and every tradition (e.g.: the followers of Jesus came to believe he was raised from the dead because they saw him alive afterward; or Jesus ate some fish in their presence after he had died) has to be evaluated on its own merits weighing the factors that might show whether it is historical or not.  Doing history is not a matter of simply choosing some traditions one likes and accepting them, and rejecting the ones one doesn’t like.  It’s a matter of evaluating each and every one of them.

So how does one evaluate these two traditions in particular? With respect to the first, that Jesus’ disciples believed they saw him alive after his death, leading them to conclude he had been raised from the dead, the most important thing to stress is that there are two historical realities that simply cannot be denied.  The followers of Jesus did claim that Jesus came back to life.  If they had not claimed that, we would not have Christianity.  So they did claim it.  Moreover, they did claim that they knew he rose precisely because some of them saw him alive again afterward.  No one can doubt that.  It is the tradition found in Matthew, Mark, and John and it is the tradition given us by an actual eyewitness, Paul.  It is multiply attested in independent traditions.  And as important, nothing else is ever cited in our early sources for being any other reason for people to believe he was raised from the dead (e.g., the empty tomb never convinces anyone).

So that’s the reality: the followers did believe he came to be raised,  and there must have been something to make them think so.  Moreover, the one thing that they said made them think so (including one of the people who wrote about coming to think so) is that they saw Jesus alive again afterward.  As a historian I conclude that it is likely it was because the followers saw, or thought they saw, Jesus alive after his execution that led to the belief he had been raised from the dead.   One virtue of this conclusion is that it “works” historically, whether a person is a Christian or not.  Christians would say Jesus really was raised and appeared to his followers; non-Christians would say that the followers were just seein’ things.

What about the other tradition, about Jesus eating fish?   What historical realities does *it* explain?  Well, none actually.  Nothing makes it necessary.  There is nothing about early Christianity that requires this tradition to be historically true.  I’m not saying the disciples must not have seen any such thing.  I’m just ambivalent on it.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t – nothing requires me to think they did.  You get stories about Jesus eating something in several accounts, yes, but nothing else hinges on it, unlike the first instance.

Moreover, I can think of very good reasons indeed why some Christians might want to invent the idea that Jesus ate some fish (or honey or whatever) in the disciples’ presence after his resurrection.  We know of Christians who were insisting that Jesus was not *physically* raised from the dead, but only spiritually.  How can one prove that the resurrection was physical, not just spiritual?  Well, if Jesus engaged in bodily, physical activities, that would show that he was raised in an actual, physical body.  The tradition, in other words, serves a particular polemical function within the early Christian tradition.  That makes it suspicious (of course the “appearances” of Jesus perform a function too, of showing that Jesus was raised: but they are “necessary” for other reasons – and there do not appear to be other reasons for his fish-eating).

And so I think one of the two claims has a strong case for being historical, and the other, well, not so much.  It’s not just a matter of picking the one that I personally like.  History has to work this way, evaluating each and every tradition carefully, one at a time.

 

QUESTION:

During your evangelical years, was your faith based solely upon the bible, or did you also draw upon personal spiritual experiences with God?  From what I’ve heard about the time you turned away from your faith, it seems you lost faith in the credibility of the biblical texts and this led you to losing your faith in God. As a liberal Christian who is skeptical of several parts of the NT (for many of the reasons you argue), I find this curious because I maintained my faith and communion with God through the personal experiences I have. You could say I never found it necessary to chuck the divine baby out with the scriptural bathwater. I am curious if these spiritual experiences were lacking in your time as an evangelical, as most seem to have experienced them.

 

RESPONSE:

Yes, I can see why people have said this about me, that since my belief was completely based on the Bible, and on nothing else, that once I realized there were problems with the Bible, I left the faith and became an agnostic.  But, as it turns out, that’s not at all true.

The most important point, and in direct response to the question, is that my faith was not solely based on the Bible.   My faith as a born-again evangelical Christian was, instead, based directly on the spiritual experiences I had.  When I “accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior” and “asked Jesus into my heart,” the Bible was not directly involved.  I came to believe that this is what I needed to do for salvation, and so I did it, and I experienced a kind of emotional/spiritual ecstasy as a result of it.

My faith was in Christ, not in the Bible.  The Bible came along only at a second stage, as I wanted to learn more and more (and more and more) about my faith.  The Bible was my source.  But I continued to have (sometimes quite intense) spiritual experiences, quite apart from the Bible.

I did come to place a high value on the Bible indeed.  And I was seriously deflated when I came to realize the Bible was not an inerrant revelation from on high.  But that didn’t lead me away from the faith.  It made me more thoughtful about my faith, and helped develop my sense that the Bible, while a valuable book, could not be the be-all and end-all of faith.

I left the faith for completely other reasons.  I came to realize, after years of struggle, that I no longer could believe there was a God who was active and involved in this world, where there is so much pain and misery: famine, drought, epidemics, natural disasters, birth defects, and on and on and on.  I just got to a point where I didn’t believe there really was a god who answers prayer who works to improve people’s lives.  It was then that I realize I no longer could consider myself a believer.
 

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Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate – Did Jesus Exist?
Another Gory Account of the Afterlife: The Apocalypse of Paul

76

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Silver  March 24, 2017

    If, then, you had ‘sometimes quite intense spiritual experiences’, who or what did you see as the source of these? Once you no longer believed there is a god did you feel that you were deluded? You have said that you now meditate. Does this practice provide the spiritual experiences that you once enjoyed as a Christian?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      I think the experiences met an important psychological/emotional need at the time. Meditation: yes, it seems to have the same emotional/personal effect of prayer.

      • Avatar
        revrichardoas  April 2, 2017

        Rather than asking theological questions and getting really heady. Nothing wrong with that. That’s why I subscribe to this blog. But I thought I’d tell a little of my story that relates to all the above. I had no faith tradition or religious education in my formative years. My early experiences with Christianity (in College) in some ways parallel Dr. Ehrman’s although I am a half generation older. I prayed to “receive Christ” in a classic evangelical manner. Unlike the ecstasy that Dr. Ehrman felt, I felt deep depression. My Christianity apparently was not fulfilling an emotional need. Why I hung in there, God only knows. I really am passionate about bible history. Nevertheless, I tried to get away from it, but I kept on coming back. Many years later, I have come to understand the foundation of the pain and depression. I went on to finish two seminary Master degrees. Had ministries. Ordination. I never seemed however to make it in the evangelical world. I ended up disagreeing with everyone. That was not my intent. I continued with many physical and emotional problems. Christianity, it seemed, didn’t do anything for me. Except I had a passion for bible history. In time, I had a serious disease that almost took my life. Fourteen weeks in the hospital in my early 30’s. It was the most refreshing spiritual time of my life. Each day I would have simple meditations in the Psalms. The spiritual experience I had, I describe as a spiritual acuity. The presence of God was so real I could almost feel him/her/it. I had no fear. Contentment. If I died, fine. I never emotionally felt better in my life, and for all practical purposes at the time I was dying. I went from a muscular 176 lbs. to a non muscular 126 lbs. So, I had risky extensive surgery, but cured, missing a big internal organ. I was emotionally and spiritually transformed through the experience. Prior to the disease I hated hospitals. After the disease, love may be too strong of term, but I ministered in them to the point where I practically lived in them. I was drawn to the weak, humble, and suffering. I had a passion to give them love. What a gift. I had lots of CPE. Great relations with my fellow Chaplains, not to mention my administrators. I did love the people. I was given a gift. The transformation continues. Some might call me a liberal Christian. Some might call me a universalist. Some might call me a heretic. I do know that my experience with God and God’s presence continues. I practice contemplative christianity and christian mysticism. And yet in many ways I am very conservative in doctrine. I interpret the scriptures differently. That’s why I’m on this blog. I have a strict disciplined hermeneutic in interpreting scripture. Dr. Ehrman has helped me with that. But I add one more hermeneutic I have learned from the late great Marcus Borg. I call it a hermeneutic of metaphor. Bottom line – against all odds I remain a christian. I believe that is because “I” did not “receive christ” christ seemingly came crashing into my life without any help from me. I am not a Calvinist. I believe christ was always there, but I was awakened or enlighten to that reality.

      • Avatar
        Jack  April 9, 2017

        Thanks very much for that simple, respectful explanation Bart. I had that same sense about ‘religious experiences’ throughout my ministry until I finally and happily walked away with no regrets.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  March 24, 2017

    We know for a fact that Troy existed. It’s been found. There was a battle there (many, no doubt). There can be little doubt that the epic story we have of the Trojan War is based on real-life events.

    So by that reasoning, we have to accept everything that Homer tells us in the Iliad?

    So the Greek pantheon of gods really exists, and Achilles actually was invulnerable, except for his heel?

    I don’t understand this kind of reasoning, and the really bizarre thing is, it seems to occur just about equally among theists and atheists. “If you accept this, you have to accept this too!” No, I don’t. Stories about past events are almost invariably hybrids, composed of both real and fabricated elements. This is a commonplace of historical study, and if you actually STUDY HISTORY, you’ll find this out.

  3. Avatar
    Jason  March 24, 2017

    Have you ever pondered (as I am doing now) why most of us choose to abandon our faith rather than accept that the god we’ve always put our faith in is just an all-powerful a-hole?

  4. Avatar
    Todd  March 24, 2017

    Well, I guess we’re back to visions again 😀 !!
    In this case you do affirm that the disciples and others did see what they believe to be the risen Christ, and they saw him do physical things. Yet Paul had visions of the risen Christ, and implied he had conversations with him, whereby he got “his gospel.” However, Paul goes to great lengths in I Cor. to indicate that Christ’s resurrection was not physical, but spiritual…even saying that it was not a resurrection of flesh and blood even though the gospel versions were quite mixed on that…eating yet passing through walls.

    I can affirm that based on these texts, those who saw Christ did indeed see something that caused them to affirm that Jesus survived and survived in a spiritual state. Whether this happened or not we can not determine from the texts.

    I seem to be in the same position as the questioner…that is, I accept that the Bible is a thoroughly human document, but testifies to many things that occurred on a spiritual or supernatural level that we simply can’t explain historically or scientifically.

    I am still drawn to belief in such on grounds of their spiritual significance.

    …which leads me to the second question, that of your personal belief and loss of faith.

    The fragility of scripture as you so well and accurately describe in your books definitely leads me away from the sola scriptura position, but I am drawn quite easily to viewing much of this in a spiritual or supernatural sense and in a personal spiritual sense.

    I realize that you became an atheist due to the realization that an all powerful God would be able to enter history and make everything ok again, but does not do so. I do not know why such a good God would not clean up this mess unless God realizes that WE are the ones who messed up this world, so we must be the ones who solves our own problems.

    In that this world is a disaster does not make me abandon God, but rather follow what Jesus taught about God’s kingdom…a place of peace and compassion. So I can do God’s work, not totally knowing who or what this God is.

    I think you could be (and indeed are) a follower of Jesus while being honest about the fragility of scripture and that we don’t readily see the work of God on a daily basis.

    Question: Could you be a follower of Jesus’ kingdom ethics of love, forgiveness, peace, and compassion based on your spiritual experiences, and still have honest reservations concerning the nature and purpose of God in this universe, and even question God’s existence? Is it possible to be a faithful agnostic ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Yes indeed. Many are.

    • Avatar
      ftbond  March 31, 2017

      if Paul is talking about some kind of “spiritual resurrection” in 1 Corinth, then all it amounts to is “we die, we go to heaven”. It’s nothing but a belief in “survival of the spirit”, an idea that the Greeks had many centuries earlier (ie, Hades, Elysium) – even long before Plato – and most assurredly an idea that the Egyptians held to many, many centuries earlier.

      What does one need “visions of Jesus” for, in order to believe in something that people have believed in (in a variety of expressions) for ages? If we’re talking about “spiritual resurrection”, then all we’re talking about is something more akin to a metaphysical concept or theological point, rather than anything else. Or, maybe worse than that: “spiritual resurrection” is really nothing but a metaphor.

      I just don’t see why there would be any “urgency” to promote an old idea in a new packaging, as if it changes anything….

      OR – maybe I’m just not seeing “spiritual resurrection” in the right light? If not, please enlighten me…

  5. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 25, 2017

    “It [the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus] is the tradition found in Matthew, Mark, and John…” Don’t you mean Matthew, Luke, and John?

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 25, 2017

    Wow! Two great questions with two great answers. Readers new to this blog might want to read Dr. Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” for a more detailed answer to question #2.

  7. Avatar
    KSS  March 25, 2017

    Bart…at 64 years, I’ve had a faith struggle similar to yours going back to at least 1995. Consulting my then Methodist senior minister, he suggested the book, ” The Christian Agnostic”. I read it several times. Frankly, I believe now that Methodist minister was himself an agnostic per some comments he made to me during our many talks. I left the formal church, drawing the same conclusions as yours about any god allowing the suffering this world sees. My question…have you read, ” The Christian Agnostic” and your opinions of that religious view. Also, I’ve read your books and attended an area college presentation you made several years ago.

  8. Avatar
    Judith  March 25, 2017

    For some of us there’s no “leaving one’s faith” any more than we can leave off loving our children. We can’t choose to have faith or not. It’s just the way it is. It makes me wonder if there are different kinds of faith?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Yes indeed!

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  March 30, 2017

      There may be different types of faith, but there are certainly different types of people. Some people are, in a sense, ‘born’ to believe while others are born without that ‘need’ hard-wired into their brains.

      The vast (90%+, I’d guess) majority of that former group believe, fundamentally, what they believe purely by chance (parents) and would be just as devout Muslims (or vice-versa) had they been born to Muslim parents.

  9. Robert
    Robert  March 25, 2017

    “We know of Christians who were insisting that Jesus was not *physically* raised from the dead, but only spiritually.”

    Are you thinking of some of the Christians in Corinth who presumably only believed that Christ was raised spiritually? Elsewhere, you have presented their views, against which Paul was arguing in 1 Cor 15, somewhat differently, or at least more fully, ie, as their believing they had already received their spiritualized lives here and now, rather than in a future bodily resurrection from the dead. We’ve discussed this earlier on your blog ‘though it would be hard to go back and find that earlier discussion. I think both characterizations of the views of some of the Christians in Corinth can be easily combined as complementary and need not be seen as an either/or proposition. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Yes, they would be some of them! It’s possible that some of them believed their own resurrection was a spiritual experience, because they thought Jesus’ was.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  March 29, 2017

        Could you please explain how a “spiritual resurrection” is supposed to work? I find this immensely confusing.

        ie – Jesus’ dead body is throw into a communal grave. It stays there. But, we say he’s “spiritually resurrected”? We’re saying “Jesus acquired survival of the spirit”?

        I fail to see how that is any different than, say, the Essene belief of “survival” (and, they didn’t even need resurrection!)

        So, what, exactly, was the compelling message of this so-called “spiritual resurrection”? Peter and John saw a ghost, so now, we’ll all be ghosts?

        I know my questions sound facetious, but I really don’t mean them to be. But, for the life of me, I can’t get a handle on what this supposed “spiritual resurrection of Jesus” was. It seems to be exactly like saying “My grandpa died, but I saw him out by the barn last night”. Clearly, that wouldn’t make Grandpa some kind of Messiah, or Savior, or any such thing. Why should seeing a ghost of Jesus be grounds for thinking he’s something special?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2017

          I think the understanding is that his body rotted but his soul went not to Sheol but up to God in heaven.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  March 31, 2017

            Interesting concept. (Note: follow-up question at the end of this post)

            So, according to 1 Thess 4, it goes like this:

            1. Jesus returns “with a shout”
            2. Those that are “asleep” (presumably in Sheol / Hades) are the first to get “spiritually resurrected”.
            3. “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”

            Since we’re talking about a “spiritual resurrection”, it would appear, then, that Step #3 really means “Then the SPIRITS of the living will be caught up together….”. Therefore, Paul means that the bodies of all those that are still living will drop dead on the spot, so their spirits can then be “spiritually resurrected” – “caught up in the air”, so to speak.

            But, 1 Corith 15 says “…we will all be *changed*, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality”.

            If we’ve understood 1 Thess correctly, then here, Paul is saying “changed” actually means “we drop dead on the spot”. After all, what other kind of “change” could lead the “alive and remaining” to a “spiritual resurrection”, thus becoming imperishable and immortal?

            In short, if Paul is indeed talking about a “spiritual resurrection”, then one could easily sum it up and say “Jesus yells, somebody blows a trumpet, then we all drop dead and go to heaven – right after those who are already dead”.

            But, the Greeks certainly didn’t need Jesus for that (unless they just needed to hear someone yell, and hear a trumpet sound). They had a belief in Elysium long before Jesus came along, and even long before Plato and the Stoics came along. So for the Greeks, it was already possible for them to go from Hades to Elysium, Jesus or no Jesus.

            Basically, then, if it’s true that early believers in Jesus (including Paul) didn’t believe in a physical resurrection, then:

            (a) for the Jews, the message is really nothing more than “Yet Another Theory of What Happens When We Die”, and

            (b) for the Greeks, the message really wasn’t terribly necessary.

            Now, if I’ve understood some of your other writings, the idea (or theory) is that over time, this “spiritual resurrection” of the “early Christians” somehow morphed into a “physical resurrection”. But, that just means it morphed into a quite well-known Pharisaic view of the resurrection – a physical resurrection (with, of course, a supernatural component).

            Isn’t it more suitably explanatory to simply say that Paul – a Pharisee – was actually talking about a Pharisaic view of the resurrection to begin with – when he’s talking about “the living” being “caught up in the air”, and “being changed in the twinkling of an eye”, and “this mortal putting on immortality” – rather than espousing this “early belief of spiritual resurrection” theory – (which makes sense only if we make some awkward stretches with word meanings) – only to have it morph into a Pharisaic view after a few decades?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 31, 2017

            Possibly. I’ll need to think about it.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 25, 2017

    I think you’ve told us when and why you “lost your faith” many times. The questioner must be new to the blog!

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  March 25, 2017

    What would be some of the problems with saying the disciples just carried on Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom, and that later Christians wrote the gospels and brought in the idea that the disciples believed they saw a resurrected Jesus. And any mention by Paul in his letters about the disciples seeing Jesus was just Paul trying to justify his own visions. Did any of the people he wrote to ever meet any of the disciples? I hope this doesn’t take me into Jesus mythicist territory, that’s not my intention. I’m just talking about after His death.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      Yes, it appears the Corinthians, for example, knew Peter. As did people in Antioch he refers to in Galatians.

  12. epicurus
    epicurus  March 25, 2017

    After I lost confidence in biblical inerrancy, I felt I had to leave Christianity. When I talk to Christians who say they have problems with huge parts of the Bible but maintain their faith and commune with God through personal experience, I often wonder how they know they are communing with the Christian God, the Triune God, etc and have have a relationship with Jesus, because everything we know or believe about those comes from the Bible. I guess I’m a rube, but I still don’t don’t know how to reconcile that.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      It’s a completely modern idea that you need the Bible to know anything about God. Throughout Christian history, very few people have thought that.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 28, 2017

        Could you do (or repost, if you’ve done it before) a post on that? In the context of Christian scholarship, I’ve never seen that statement in print before and it is very pertinent to a debate that is going on as we write within my larger faith community, which has always had an ambiguous attitude toward the Bible.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2017

          It’s pretty simply proven. For the first several centuries there *was* no “Bible,” and yet people believed. So you don’t need a Bible for faith. (So too, for most of history the vast majority of Christians had no access to the Bible)

    • Avatar
      doug  March 26, 2017

      I don’t think you’re a rube, epicurus. Long ago when someone said God spoke to them, I would say, “How do you know it was God if he wasn’t wearing a carnation?”. In other words, aside from wanting to believe it was God speaking or choosing to interpret an experience as God speaking, how would one “know”? Believing God gave a right answer wouldn’t prove it, since our own mind can give a right answer. A special feeling can come from our own mind as well.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  March 26, 2017

      I’ve always wondered too: since so many evangelicals also believe in the Devil or Satan (“the great deceiver”), when they have a spiritual experience how do they know it isn’t the DEVIL talking to them? I don’t see anyway they could tell the difference except by it just confirming what they already believe.

    • Avatar
      ftbond  March 29, 2017

      Ultimately, faith in Jesus Christ has to do, first and foremost, with accepting, or “believing in”, or “acknowledging as fact”, the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. This part of “the faith” is not a matter of “subjectivity”, like a “personal experience” might be. (Although, granted, for some people – like Paul attests to – there can be an experience). But, it’s like this: Christianity is about the FACT of the resurrection of Jesus. It really has nothing to do with “feelings” (necessarily), nor with “subjective experiences”, or any such thing. (and, BTW – this is one reason the idea of a “spiritual resurrection” is considered in mainstream Christianity as a bit of Gnostic nonsense).

      If Jesus was truly, physically resurrected, then it matters. It means there is a God, there is an afterlife, there is a God who wants us to know Him, and, above all else, it means that this is all “a matter of FACT”, not some “random experience”, or your “feelings at the moment” or any such thing. If Jesus was truly raised from the dead, and one regards that as Fact, then that means it is regarded in the same fashion as “1 + 1 = 2” – meaning, “it is what it is”.

      If Jesus was truly, physically raised from the dead, and thus, we know there is indeed a God, an afterlife, and that we have lives that matter to God, the question then becomes “how do we then live”?

      For this, I can only imagine that Christians – before we had the “New Testament” (as it were) – relied quite heavily on the Torah, the prophets, and on the words of Jesus, as taught by those who knew him, in order to answer the question of “how do we then live”. But, in any case, I’d venture to say that true “Christianity” has always had, at it’s roots, the acknowledgement of the hardcore fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus (along with repentence, and “confessing” that Jesus is, in fact, “Lord”). But, the idea that we’re supposed to be able to “commune with God through personal experience” (blablabla) is, like, super-secondary.

      This is what Paul was talking about when he said “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. If the resurrection of Jesus was not an actual, real-life fact, then the rest of this stuff is just BS….

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 30, 2017

        ftbond, that was really well-written. I do have a comment about your conclusion(s) when, for example, you write:

        ‘If Jesus was truly, physically resurrected, then it matters. It means there is a God, there is an afterlife, there is a God who wants us to know Him, and, above all else, it means that this is all “a matter of FACT”’.

        While Paul’s contention is true (that the faith is dead if he was not raised), even if Jesus was, IN FACT, raised, it does NOT necessarily follow that ‘there is an afterlife’. Even taking the Bible at face-value, it’s arguable that Jesus didn’t even preach that, at least not in the sense that most modern Christians think today.

        • Avatar
          ftbond  March 31, 2017

          Hi, HawksJ –

          Regarding my use of “afterlife” – perhaps it might depend on how one defines “afterlife”. I, for one, do not at all believe that when we (ie, “Christians”) die, we “go to heaven”. I don’t think we really go *any place* that we might consider an “afterlife”. My understanding is that when the “general resurrection” occurs, we’ll inhabit a “new heavens and a new earth”.

          I would only offer this: if Jesus was raised from the dead, then we can, at least, say HE has an afterlife, could we not? And, if Paul is correct in 1 Corith 15, “so also in Christ will all be made alive”, then it begins to appear that there is a life after this one, of some type.

          Granted, to the best of my knowledge, Paul never made use of the phrase “new heaven and new earth” (or, anything similar). But, his own claim about himself was that he was a Pharisee, and it is long-established that the Pharisaic belief was that an actual, bodily resurrection resurrection formed part of the Messianic hope (Isa. xxiv. 19; Dan. xii. 2; Enoch, xxv. 5, li. 1, xc. 33; Jubilees, xxiii. 30). One can do a search of bona-fide “Judaism” sites (not Messianic Judaism) to find a great deal of info not only about Pharisaic beliefs, but also, their beliefs in the nature of the resurrection.

          Josephus himself notes it was not the immortality of the soul which the Pharisees believed in, but the resurrection of the body – as expressed in the (current) liturgy – and this formed part of their Messianic hope – which was that we would live in the Messianic Kingdom.

          Bottom line: You are correct in saying that an afterlife is not a “given”, just because Jesus rose from the dead. But, what Paul is writing, when he says “so also in Christ all will be made alive”, he is saying “so also in the Messiah will all be made alive” – again – pointing right back to the Pharisaic belief that we will share in the Messianic Kingdom. In other words, the BELIEF was that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore because he was resurrected (heralding the incoming Kingdom), then we too shall be bodily resurrected. Jesus, as Messiah, then, is “guarantor” of that promise.

          At least, that’s pretty much what Paul is talking about, being a Pharisee….

  13. Avatar
    tcasto  March 25, 2017

    I appreciate your sharing your experience in being “called to the altar”. I had a similar experience as a young teen. I became very involved in our small church community, ushering on Sunday and even giving a (very poor) sermon one Sunday night. But I was always half-in and half-out. My life Monday through Saturday was in a different world. I didn’t practice my faith and I didn’t proselytize. I had reservations about the credibility of the Bible and the existence of God, but I didn’t really confront them until much later. I do recall an episode from Sunday school when I was maybe nine or ten years old. The teacher told us that even thinking bad thoughts was as great a sin as acting on them! I thought to myself, I am really screwed :-).

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  March 25, 2017

    Dr. Erhman, I think that many of the people who question the resurrection of Jesus are right to question it, but I’ve noticed that many of them appear to be thoroughly confused as to what it is that makes it questionable. Namely, they appear to imagine the series of events as follows:
    1) Jesus is alive.
    2) Jesus is killed.
    3) The disciples see visions of Jesus.
    4) Those visions of Jesus convince the disciples that he was raised from the dead.
    5) The disciples come to believe that if Jesus can be raised from the dead, then everyone can and will be raised from the dead.

    But that is almost certainly not the correct order. The correct order is most likely the following:
    1) The disciples believe everyone can and will be raised from the dead any day now, to face judgment before God and/or His representatives.
    2) Jesus is alive.
    3) Jesus is killed.
    4) The disciples believe that since the Day of Judgment is imminent, Jesus might possibly have already been raised from the grave in preparation to help God judge mankind.
    5) The disciples begin seeing visions of Jesus, confirming, in their minds, that Jesus has, indeed, been raised already.

    As you can see, the first (misconceived) order of events can make a person much more skeptical about the disciples’ credulity (Seeing visions of a person means they rose from the dead?), while the second (corrected) order of events shows that the disciples’ credulity is not only valid but practically inexorable (Believing EVERYONE is soon going to be raised from the dead, and then seeing visions of your recently killed prophet must mean he’s already been raised). The reason the disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead was that they *already* believed that a day of mass resurrection of the dead was impending! And so, logically, in the disciples’ minds, if Jesus was really the Son of Man figure who was to judge mankind on behalf of God, then it would only make sense that he had been raised *before* the day of Judgment (hence why Jesus is so often called the “first fruits” of the Resurrection). And then, only after already holding the aforementioned beliefs did the disciples start seeing “visions,” which only further confirmed what they had already assumed: Jesus has already been raised from the dead in anticipation of the mass resurrection, which was going to occur presently.

    This, I think, is the logical order that makes the disciples’ beliefs and actions at least somewhat reasonable and rational, if not perfectly understandable and logical. And I think it’s this misunderstanding and misconception on the part of skeptics and critics that makes it so difficult for them to get past the “visions” = “belief in resurrection” stumbling block. Within the proper historical context, the disciples’ beliefs and actions make so much sense that the notion that they *wouldn’t* think Jesus had risen from the dead would have actually been the anomaly, not the other way around!

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 26, 2017

      You may be right, but I see it differently.

      Let’s assume most if not all of Jesus’s disciples believed in both a coming “Kingdom of God on Earth” and a “Messiah.” Given that, they almost had to believe the Messiah would appear before the Kingdom came into being; once it was in place, there’d be no need of a “savior.” So they accepted their leader, Jesus, as being the Messiah – even though it meant redefining that figure as a charismatic preacher rather than a warrior.

      They certainly weren’t expecting the Messiah to die.

      Yes, they anticipated a “general resurrection.” But as I understand it, that was expected to come about *after* – or at least, associated with – the glorious arrival of the Kingdom.

      They must have been in near-despair after Jesus’s death. But then they began having “visions” (most likely, in my opinion, vivid dreams) in which he told them he was “still alive.” They were eager to believe! And once they did, they came up with the idea of his resurrection heralding the beginning of the “general resurrection.”

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 27, 2017

      A P.S. to my previous Reply:

      The disciples would presumably have believed Jesus still existed after his death…existed in Sheol. They would have been surprised by dreams in which he didn’t seem to be in Sheol (however they imagined it).

    • Avatar
      JoshuaJ  March 30, 2017

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the idea that the disciples fully expected Jesus to be raised doesn’t really cohere with the actions of the disciples as documented in Luke and John, for instance. Consider Luke 24 where the women return from the tomb to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised, “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them (Luke 24:11).” Or consider John’s gospel, where Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other disciple find Jesus’ body missing from the tomb on Easter Sunday, and their first thought is not that Jesus has been raised, but that someone had instead moved his body: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him (John 20:2)!”…”They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).” Even the women’s journey to the tomb on Easter Sunday (according to Mark and Luke) to anoint the body with spices indicates that the disciples did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead, but instead expected his body to rot in the grave. After all, that was the whole point of anointing a corpse with fragrant spices–to mask the stench of rotting flesh. So based on the gospel accounts, it doesn’t appear as though the disciples had the slightest inkling that Jesus would rise from the dead. This is one of the main reasons we know Matthew’s “guard at the tomb” story is bogus. If Jesus had so openly proclaimed his resurrection that it had become a matter of public knowledge even to the Sanhedrin, then it is incomprehensible that it does not even occur to his very own disciples that it might be a possibility–not a single one of them even thinks of it! I mean, what are the odds that the nonbelieving Sanhedrin would understand Jesus’ resurrection prediction perfectly and would therefore arrange for the guard at the tomb, but that Jesus’ very own disciples, who had already been told many times (allegedly) in no uncertain terms by Jesus himself that he would be raised, would still not understand–would still not even consider the possibility–that Jesus would rise from the dead?

      On a side note: If I personally witness a guy (over a two or three year period) consistently performing miracles such as healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, magically multiplying food to feed the masses, and even physically raising someone from the dead–so many miracles, in fact, that “if every one of them were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25)–when that same guy later predicts his own death and that he will rise from the dead three days later, I’m probably going to take him at his word! I have seen him magically bring a dead person back to life, for Pete’s sake! I’m going to believe everything that guy tells me! Therefore, I am going to fully expect his body to be missing from the grave on the third day (just as he told me), and I am most certainly not going to be confused when I do find it missing and instead think that someone has moved his body (John 20:2).

    • Avatar
      JoshuaJ  March 30, 2017

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the idea that the disciples fully expected Jesus to be raised doesn’t really cohere with the actions of the disciples as documented in Luke and John, for instance. Consider Luke 24 where the women return from the tomb to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised, “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them (Luke 24:11).” Or consider John’s gospel, where Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other disciple find Jesus’ body missing from the tomb on Easter Sunday, and their first thought is not that Jesus has been raised, but that someone had instead moved his body: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him (John 20:2)!”…”They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).” Even the women’s journey to the tomb on Easter Sunday (according to Mark and Luke) to anoint the body with spices indicates that the disciples did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead, but instead expected his body to rot in the grave. After all, that was the whole point of anointing a corpse with fragrant spices–to mask the stench of rotting flesh. So based on the gospel accounts, it doesn’t appear as though the disciples had the slightest inkling that Jesus would rise from the dead. This is one of the main reasons we know Matthew’s “guard at the tomb” story is totally bogus. If Jesus had so openly proclaimed his resurrection that it had become a matter of public knowledge even to the Sanhedrin, then it is incomprehensible that it does not even occur to his very own disciples that it might be a possibility–not a single one of them even thinks of it! I mean, what are the odds that the nonbelieving Sanhedrin would understand Jesus’ resurrection prediction perfectly and would therefore arrange for the guard at the tomb, but that Jesus’ very own disciples, who had already been told many times (allegedly) in no uncertain terms by Jesus himself that he would be raised, would still not understand–would still not even consider the possibility–that Jesus would rise from the dead?

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 25, 2017

    Do you agree that the Visions and physical interaction with Jesus after the resurrection are embellished according to when the books are written? For example in mark few details are noted but as time passes Luke and Matthew give more detail . Even later John and acts tell stories of extreme physical interaction.

    The stories contain claims which can’t be refuted as all the eyewitness have died long ago.

    Yet most fundamentalist are lead either directly or indirectly to believe these stories are written by the apostles and are completely accurate.

  16. Lev
    Lev  March 25, 2017

    Many thanks for these answers Bart – it’s hugely appreciated.

    I’m afraid I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the ‘other reasons’ that qualify the historicity of the risen Jesus. You describe two criteria for treating the risen Jesus appearances as historical: 1. the multiple attestations within independent traditions, and 2. that multiple eyewitnesses claim they saw Jesus alive again afterward.

    But how does this criteria not apply to the multiple independent traditions that claim multiple eyewitnesses had physical interactions with the risen Jesus?

    The two independent sources that emphasise physical interactions of named eyewitnesses with the risen Jesus are Luke and John. Luke claims Jesus handed bread to Cleopas at Emmaus (24:30) and later ‘the eleven and their companions’ touch the wounds of Jesus, pass him some fish and watch him eat it (v39-43). In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalen grabs hold of the risen Jesus who rebukes her ‘Do not hold on to me’ (20:17). Later John describes how Thomas touches the wounds of the risen Jesus (v27).

    I accept that these accounts serve a particular polemical function (1 John 4:1-2), but as you point out, “the “appearances” of Jesus perform a function too, of showing that Jesus was raised: but they are “necessary” for other reasons – and there do not appear to be other reasons for his fish-eating.” If the ‘other reasons’ are the multiple independent sources citing eyewitnesses making these claims, then surely this applies to both the risen Jesus appearances, as well as the physical interactions?

    Many thanks again for taking the time to engage with your readers Bart. I’m thrilled and chuffed to be able to engage with you on these matters. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      I think you’re misreading me. Those are not exactly the criteria I applied for determining that visions led to teh belief Jesus was raised. The far more important point is that *something* certainly *did* lead them to think so, because it is beyond dispute that they did so. And there is nothing in any of our records to indicate that it was anything *else*. So if anyone thinks it was, in fact, something else, they would need to provide some pretty strong reasoning and evidence.

      • Lev
        Lev  March 26, 2017

        Ah – I think I follow.

        The risen Jesus visions hypothesis (which draws upon multiple independent eyewitness sources) is the most probable explanation due to no other evidence overturning it, whereas the physical interaction accounts *does* have sufficient evidence to provide a more probable alternative, i.e. “it serves a particular polemical function within the early Christian tradition.”

        Am I barking up the right tree now?

  17. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  March 25, 2017

    Could you believe there was a god who designed and created a world in which he/she would not be active or involved, but gave us the tools to solve all the ‘problems’ with this world?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      I could believe that, sure. But I don’t see (for me) much of any reason to do so. (And it seems to me that it doesn’t solve the problems of suffering that I have. Sure, in the 21st c. we have the tools to solve, e.g., world hunger; but what about the billions of people who lived nad suffered *before* now? Why would God not have given *them* the tools? etc….)

      • Avatar
        leo.b@cox.net  March 26, 2017

        My personal belief (with no proof) is that this god invented the evolutional process the world and ourselves are going through. We are evolving towards a more perfect world and solving problems, and in the future exploring and moving to
        other physical worlds. Simplistically, maybe this god wants to see what we can do on our own without any interference.
        Maybe that’s a little sadistic, but we really don’t and can’t know the plan. Plainly, this god simply enjoys watching the evolutional process. But it sure doesn’t seem fair here and now.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 26, 2017

      Even if such a God existed, why bother worshipping him? It would be no more useful than worshipping the Big Bang.

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    wje  March 25, 2017

    Good evening, Bart. I was listening to a few of your lectures on you tube and I wanted to ask you a question about the last hours of Jesus. One of the Gospels has an account of Jesus being taken to Herod. Is that plausible? Where did this story come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      It’s in Luke, and no, it does not seem very plausible.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 26, 2017

      It’s certainly possible that Herod Antipas was in Jerusalem for the Passover. But even if he was this was Pilate’s jurisdiction, not Herod’s. It’s not like Pilate would need permission from Herod to execute Jesus.

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    John1003  March 26, 2017

    I whatched a football game with about fifteen or so guys. An influential guy in the group didn’t like a referee decision. He claimed to the group that they got it wrong. This was after we saw it in slow motion several times with the TV announcers that said unequivocally that the ref got it right. I also saw the slo mo shots. No question ! The call was good. No one stood agianst this guy to say he was wrong. It appeared to me that the majority of those men if asked later would testify that the call was wrong. My point is that it would only take one influential person to claim that he saw something and due to peer pressure people would believe the fact ( Jesus has risen ) and create stories around it. Even if some or many knew the stories weren’t true they would keep silent. Why ? Because a person or people they respected said they saw him. You seem to be suggesting that they saw something. I am suggesting that only a few or one person needed to claim he saw something. No one really had to actually see or think they saw something. One Lie from one person or small group would be all it took. Mark Twain said I think ” a lie will get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” I tried to make this point on another day. Wanted to argue the point one more time in a different way. Dr Ehrman , do you find this line reasoning plausible at all ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2017

      yes, there has been significant psychological research to suggest this kind of “dominant personality influence” really does happen.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 31, 2017

        Isn’t that a more likely scenario than several people having very similar ‘visions’? I agree with John 1003. I think the most likely explanation is that one very influential person either made it up or had some sort of vision, and others around him simply feel into line and said, ‘I saw him, too!’.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2017

          That’s what I’ve argued as well, that three people saw him and others then jumped on board.

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    twiskus  March 26, 2017

    Did you ever have one *official* A-HA moment that can distinctly remember where you realized you were no longer a believer? If so, what was that final straw?

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