We know who the disciples saw after the empty tomb was found. But what did they see?
As Christians we believe that the same person who had died on the cross, Jesus Christ, really appeared in the flesh-and-blood, even with the same body as before, yet in a glorified condition.
But last year, the Boston Globe published an interview with a secular theologian (yes, you read that right), Bart Ehrman who offered a ‘new theory’ about what the disciples had seen.
His answer: a hallucination. The disciples were so distraught by the death of their savior, so his theory goes, that their minds conjured up visions of Him. It was on the basis of these visions that Christianity supposedly took off as a global faith. Not surprisingly, much of this theory relies not on theology or history, but modern psychology.
This is actually a modern version of a very ‘old’ theory, one that goes back to the earliest centuries of the Church, when it was known as the heresy of Docetism: the false teaching that Christ only seemed to have a body but that there was no actual Incarnation.
And, it is completely at odds with Scripture.
Ehrman, for all the stock he puts in modern psychology, has overlooked a glaring fact: the gospel writers knew the difference between such things as hallucinations, ghosts, and what is real. They would have, first of all, been familiar with the story from 1 Samuel 28, where the beleaguered King Saul hires a medium to conjure up the ghost of Samuel.
The gospel writers may not have been schooled in the categories of modern psychology, but they certainly were familiar with prophetic visions as well. Just flip open the Old Testament and move your finger around the second half and you’re likely to land in one of the prophetic books.
Let’s assume we’ve done just that and found ourselves in Ezekiel, which contains some of the most fantastic visions in all literature. The prophet opens his book by declaring in the first verse that “the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions.” The first vision was of a glowing cloud with polished metal in its middle and out of which came four four-winged and four-faced creatures. As Christians we can believe that Ezekiel had some kind of vision, but it was a vision into heaven: nowhere do we read that one of those creatures steps into the earthly world of Ezekiel.
Somewhat later in the book, Ezekiel has quite a different vision in which he prophesies over a valley full of dried bones. Those bones start coming to life in front of him: bones start connecting with bone and flesh and muscle start growing.
As Christians we believe this vision was inspired by God. But that’s not the same thing as believing that there was a historical event in which an ancient Jewish prophet walked out into a valley of bones and brought them back to life. No one, as far is this writer is aware, claims that there was some inexplicable mass resurrection miracle that occurred during the time of Ezekiel. (Again, this does nothing to diminish belief that Ezekiel had an authentic vision from God. But it was just that: a vision.)
The point is that the disciples were certainly aware of the possibility of visions and apparitions.
This brings us back to Ehrman. He does have one great insight in that Boston Globe interview: had there simply been an empty tomb and nothing else, the disciples would have made the assumption that any other normal person would make when finding an empty grave—someone most have snatched the body. Ehrman concludes that it was the appearances of Jesus after His death that became the foundation for their new faith. Now, where he goes off the rails is in his claim that these appearances were nothing more than hallucinations.
Here’s the problem with Ehrman’s thesis: the same logic that applies to the empty tomb also would hold true for the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The disciples had ample categories of experience available to them to explain this phenomenon in terms understandable to them. They could have concluded that they were seeing some ghost, as Saul saw Samuel. Or they could have chalked their experiences up to a prophetic vision, along the lines of an Ezekiel. That’s how any normal person would have reacted to the visions. Just like any normal person would not assume an empty grave meant a corpse had risen from the dead.
But something convinced them that they had encountered something entirely new and never before seen in the history of the world—that all their previous categories of experience were inadequate to explain what they were seeing.
Prior to the gospel accounts of the resurrection, there are clues in experiences the disciples had, experiences the significance of which they may not have grasped until after the resurrection of Jesus. One is Jesus walking on the water. In the versions of this story that appear in Mark 6 and Matthew 14, the disciples actually think they are seeing a ghost. That is the word actually used in the New American Bible. In the older Douay-Rheims translation, the original Greek is translated as apparition. In the Greek itself, the word is phantasma, on obvious precursor to our English word phantasm.
Whichever word is best, one thing is certain: the disciples did not really think they were seeing Jesus Christ in the flesh-and-blood.
What convinced them otherwise?
The Gospel of Matthew, which has a longer version of this than Mark, offers some insight. First, that seeming ghost speaks to them: “Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Then a conversation ensues between Jesus and Peter. Well, people hear voices all the time. But then something happens to Peter—something much more real and objective than hearing a voice and seeing a ghost-like image. Peter himself is able to walk on the water, after expressing faith in Jesus.
If any of the disciplines remained unconvinced that this was really Jesus, what happened next must have clinched it: once Peter’s faith begins to falter, he sinks and cries out to Jesus, who stretches out his hand and catches Peter. Now there are people who claim to have heard and seen ghosts, but how many say that a ghost reached out and physically grabbed them?
Another episode that prepared the way for the resurrection was the transfiguration. Here’s how it’s described in Matthew 17: “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Note there is no underlying cause for the disciples to be hallucinating at this point. Christ has not yet died so the naturalistic explanation that Ehrman uses to explain the resurrection appearances—that their grief-stricken minds were playing tricks on them—does not work here.
Now what exactly were the disciples witnessing? According to Aquinas, it was the glory of Christ’s deity and of His soul shining through the body. He even seems to suggest that this sudden burst of glory might appear to an observer to be similar to what Christ might have looked like in His glorified body. (The difference is that this was temporary and was miraculous because Christ’s body at this point had not been glorified.)
In the gospel accounts, the transfiguration sticks out. More to the point, it seems out of place. It doesn’t really fit in with other miracles performed by Jesus, nor is it connected to any parable, sermon, or other teaching. Notably, in the Gospel of Matthew, it occurs soon after Peter’s confession of Christ’s identity. But the significance of that confession, and of the transfiguration itself, cannot be fully grasped until after the resurrection. (This explains why Christ tells the three disciples to disclose to no one what they had seen until after He had been “raised from the dead.”)
These pre-resurrection experiences led the disciples to be open to the possibility that Jesus Christ had really risen from the dead—that they were dealing with a new reality, something for which previous categories of experience could not account. Of course, the resurrection narratives themselves contain plenty of indicators that the disciples realized the resurrected Christ was really with them in the flesh and blood.
Accounts of shared meals and the encounter on the road to Emmaus come immediately to mind. But the most compelling story that demonstrates the reality of the resurrection may be that of Doubting Thomas.
Thomas, perhaps channeling his inner psychologist, did not believe what he was seeing. He must have considered it some sort of vision that fell short of the real thing. It was only by putting his fingers into the nail holes and his hand into the wounded side of Jesus that Thomas came to faith. Here was something wholly new in history: both Saul and Ezekiel had authentic visions, but Saul never shook hands with the ghost of Samuel nor did Ezekiel get to pet one of the living creatures.
C.S. Lewis, the great twentieth century apologist, once said the gospel accounts force one to accept Jesus Christ as either Lord, lunatic, or liar (as quoted by Ehrman, actually). Lewis’ point was that there is no way of compromising with the story of Jesus. For those who cannot accept the possibility of miracles or of an Incarnation, the Gospels do not permit the easy out of saying Jesus was merely a moralist, a prophet, wise teacher, or social revolutionary.
We face a similar choice with the apostles and the gospel writers. They were either lunatics, liars, or they actually witnessed the risen Lord.