Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

In my previous post I had started us thinking about the resurrection from the point-of-view of one of its prominent deniers – Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, he had given a vivid description of how Jesus would have impacted his disciples during his lifetime. He then painted a thorough picture of how the disciples would have interpreted the meaning of a non-resurrected, dead, Jesus. Spong focused on the turmoil that would have gone on in Simon Peter’s mind and Spong portrays Peter’s conclusion as:

…Jesus had to have been guilty of blasphemy. He was dead, and they had to begin to accept the fact that they had been misled, duped, and therefore they also were guilty (p.251)

Bishop Spong on the turn-around of Simon Peter

Spong has perfectly captured the implications that would indeed have haunted the minds of the disciples with a non-resurrected Jesus. But what was the catalyst that would have turned these peasant fishermen around to take on the world? Spong continues by surmising how it would have turned around for Simon Peter after a night of fishing and now warming himself by the fire.

Suddenly it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law… Jesus’ death was the final episode in the story of his life. It demonstrated as nothing else could or would that it is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love… It was a love that allowed us to stop pretending and simply to be. Simon saw the meaning of the crucifixion that morning as he had never before seen it … this was the dawn of Easter in human history … the clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment he know that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive. (p.255)

So what caused this ‘coming together’ for Simon? Well after the night of fishing, by the fire, he ‘broke bread’ and said grace and in doing so remembered Jesus. That’s it! That changed the defeated and confused Simon into valiant Peter that no one could silence. Read Spong’s explanation again in detail, and you will see it just raises far more questions than it answers. How could the crucifixion not be ‘punitive’? It is the worst form of humiliation and torture that man has invented. In what way is Jesus being ‘intentional’ and ‘acting’ out a ‘parable’ that leads to his grisly end? How can a man tortured on a cross, without a resurrection, be a “sign of God’s love”? And is not anyone’s ‘death the final episode of their life’? That is true for everyone. That is just a circular statement to mean nothing. How does Jesus giving his life ‘away’ in crucifixion ‘demonstrate as nothing else could’ that ‘we find life’ (assuming no resurrection)? That is bogus; it just demonstrates the reverse. How does Simon in that moment ‘know’ that Jesus was part of the ‘very essence of God’ when as we saw in the first quote that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would very logically been understand as proof of his ‘blasphemy’? What could be going on in Simon’s mind to get this sudden ‘realization’? Spong tells us.

It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment … a realm of God from within which Jesus appeared to Simon. Was it real? Yes, I am convinced it was real. Was it objective? No, I do not think it was objective. Can it be real if not objective? Yes I think it can. (p.256)

We have a word for this kind of thing, where something appears ‘real’ to the beholder, but is nonetheless not objective (i.e. it is not true). We call it delusion. There would be no other way to describe what would have happened to Peter at this moment if Spong’s scenario is true. In a real sense, Spong has Peter becoming a lunatic regarding the person of Jesus.

Spong on the turn-around of the other apostles

But perhaps we should cut Spong some slack. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and concede that it is conceivable that in the stress Peter went through that he snapped and had this delusional ‘realization’. But that still does not explain anything. Peter needs to get a movement going (which we know from history did indeed take off). He needs to get all the other ‘apostles’ on board. And he has to do so in a way that will sustain them for a long, long time in a difficult, difficult task. Consider, given the opposition that the disciples would face in the coming years, what kind of pressure they would be under. Dr Simon Greenleaf, a professor of Law at Harvard whose specialty it was to train students how to cross-examine witnesses had this to say of the disciples coming career:

The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted [1]

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal had this to say about the disciples.

The hypothesis that the disciples were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. [2]

So how is delusional Peter going to develop men of adequate calibre to face this task? Spong tells us:

The gospel of Easter and Jesus as the exalted one, living with God, dawned, I believe in Galilee with Peter at its heart. Peter then opened the eyes of the other Galilean disciples to see what he saw. They took this faith to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles some six months after the crucifixion. That was the real triumphal journey. That was the original Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem they made known their faith in the risen, living Christ; and in time the Jerusalem setting for the resurrection became the primary one…The Jerusalem Easter legends are not to be dismissed as untrue. They are meant to be probed for clues, as I trust I have done adequately. (p.282)

So Peter just ‘opened the eyes’ of the other disciples to see his delusion!!? Then they marched down to Jerusalem, and in a public display, in the teeth of the authorities of the day they proclaimed the ‘risen’, ‘living’ Christ! So now Lunatic Peter has made Liars of the rest of the disciples since what they were saying would have been a lie.  Jesus was not risen; he was not living (in Spong’s unfolding scenario).

In attempting to avoid a supernatural explanation for the events of history that we know, Spong has made his natural explanation supremely bizarre and infinitely less rational. His scenario takes a naive faith to believe because it flies in the face of facts that we know. But somehow he thinks he has ‘adequately’ explained things.   There is nothing ‘adequate’ about his explanation – but it is naturalistic, and this provides a glimpse into a foundational assumption in our society.  Spong, like so many of us, equates naturalism with ‘rational’ and ‘adequate’.  Like an iceberg submerged just below the water surface, invisible but certainly there, this unwritten doctrine squeezes so much of our thinking that, without realizing it, we confuse ‘adequate rationality’ with ‘naturalistic folly’.  That is why Spong thinks his scenario is reasonable.  But he is not even close to accounting for all the facts of history as we know them. How does he explain the turnaround of Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus? We will see how he does this in our next post.

[1] Greenleaf, An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of
Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice
. 1874 p. 29

[2] Blaise Pascal Pensees 322,310

Considering the Resurrection: From the Eyes of its Denier – Bishop Spong

During the Easter week I put up a posts I and II on Easter Examined giving an overview for the resurrection of Jesus and I also uploaded the videos of Session 7 which considers this question in greater depth. Since we are now a few weeks after Easter and thus in the time of year corresponding to the period just after the death of Jesus I thought it could be interesting to re-visit this time period more critically than we typically do. After all, most of us generally do not think past Easter Sunday and whether one believes it or not, it was not the resurrection of Jesus that changed human history, but it was the eyewitness followers of Jesus that changed history with their proclamation of this event.  And it is in precisely this post-death period that we are in now in which their convictions were formed one way or another. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the close of the 1st Century, reminds us of the impact of the diciples on his world when he writes of them that:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous… Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive…. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.’ Antiquities xviii 63

Spong: Prolific author and Church Bishop stands up to refute the Resurrection

Something happened in this period just after Jesus’ death that changed the disciples, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. So what was it? Great question – and there is no better person to help us walk through it than Bishop Shelby Spong. Spong has gained wide-spread notoriety and a following because as a bishop in the Episcopalian church, and as a prolific author, he made a career out of being an outspoken critic of almost every aspect of the gospel. So when it comes to the resurrection he flatly denies it. But Spong recognizes that this alleged event has changed human history so therefore just denying it is not reasonable – an alternate explanation of what ‘really’ happened needs to articulated by the honest skeptic and he does just that. In fact he wrote a whole book on the topic entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A high-ranking church leader denying the resurrection whilst advancing a better explanation based on reason – what better context could we ever find to better consider the question of the resurrection. So let’s dive in.

Spong asserts (from the sources like Josephus and Tacitus) that Jesus did indeed die.

The fact remains that Jesus of Nazareth was executed, and when he was dying it was clear that his movement was crushed. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? p. 241

He then argues that the body was ‘placed in a common grave’ and was basically lost and the body decayed. But what then changed the disciples into the men with the courage, tenacity and conviction to change a hostile world? Spong knows that this is the fundamental question that must be resolved to give a satisfactory account of the events surrounding the alleged (in his mind) resurrection – because this fact is historically irrefutable and it demands an explanation. So he continues his scenario by first backtracking a bit to help us understand what kind of impact Jesus would have had on Simon Peter from the months they would have been together with Simon the disciple and Jesus his rabbi:

The impact of Jesus on Simon had to have been enormous…. Simon had heard Jesus’ teaching; he had watched his impact on others. Simon had seen the quality of Jesus’ life, and perhaps above all else, he had the privilege to live inside Jesus’ relationship with God… Jesus had loved him into being loving. Jesus had called him across the barriers that prejudice had erected against Samaritans, against women, and even against  Gentiles … Jesus had talked about the kingdom of God breaking into History, about the final judgment, and about the end of time. Simon had sensed from his words that that Jesus’ very life was in some way related to that kingdom and its coming… Simon had seen in Jesus a rare personal integrity that was displayed in the courage to be himself in all circumstances… Jesus seemed to be free of the need to be defined by the responses of others.” ibid pg 244

Simon also saw in Jesus a man who had a mission. I suspect that Simon was not certain what that mission was, but its reality was never in doubt… When people came to write their understanding of Jesus, they portrayed him as one who had a rendez-vous with destiny.  ibid pg 246

Spong Examines the Impact of a Non-Resurrected Jesus on his Followers

As Spong explains to us, in life Jesus would have made quite an impact on Simon Peter. Spong then details for us the kind of internal struggle and anguish that Simon Peter  would have been living with in the weeks after the non-resurrected death of Jesus. Here is how Spong explains it:

The death of Jesus was also incontrovertible. The meaning that death brought in that instance was not pleasant. Jesus had been executed upon a cross of wood. The Torah, so sacred to every Jewish man and woman, called one accursed who was hung upon a tree. What arrogance it would take for unlearned fisherfolk to suggest another alternative. Jesus was accused of blasphemy. No power intervened to save him. Death became God’s ‘no’. That ‘no’ had been engineered by the highest religious authorities of the land. The chief priests spoke for God. Jesus had been condemned by God’s earthly representatives. How could those who were not educated in either the Torah or the traditions of God’s people stand with credibility in opposition to that?… On one side there was the experience that they had had with Jesus that called them out of the old and into the new in their understanding of God. On the other side, Jesus was dead, and this new understanding had not prevailed. It was the old and not the new that had proven victorious… the religious hierarchy were the survivors, the victors. Jesus was the deceased, the vanquished. The minds of those like Simon had to begin to wrap themselves around the inevitability of those conclusions. Jesus must not have been of God. Jesus must have been wrong. Jesus had to have been guilty of blasphemy. He was dead, and they had to begin to accept the fact that they had been misled, duped, and therefore they also were guilty. ibid pg 251

Exactly!  Spong precisely frames the kind of interpretation and defeat that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would have etched itself on the minds of the Jewish people of that day – and particularly on his peasant fishermen disciples.  Spong vividly and accurately plays out for us the mental and emotional confusion and anguish that:

“Simon wrestled [with], day after day, week after week. He fished and he shared bread and fish by the lake with his friends as … the weeks added up to months and still there was no resolution.” ibid pg 252

One would think that Spong would end the story there, which is where, by all rights, it should have ended if there had been no resurrection. But it cannot end there because the facts of history speak incontrovertibly of an explosive movement, starting in Jerusalem, led by these peasant fishermen that took on all authorities, experts and powers of the world in that day, and without money, military power, education, status, or connections –  they won! It did not start decades later, did not start somewhere else, was not led by some anonymous shadowy group.  This is the fact of history that any theory of what happened to Jesus must explain.  Simply denying the resurrection without explaining this is simply not facing up to facts.  So how does Spong reason that this situation turned itself around so dramatically? We continue Spong’s analysis in our next post.



Easter Examined (Part 2)

In my previous post I showed why – based on secular historical evidence – there are overwhelming reasons supporting the claim that the tomb of Jesus was empty that first Easter Sunday.  Of course this does not prove the resurrection – there are other good explanations for an empty tomb apart from a resurrection.

However, any explanation for the absence of the body must also account for the situation on-hand: the Roman seal over the tomb, the Roman patrol guarding the tomb, the large (1-2 ton) stone covering the tomb entrance, the 40 kg of embalming agent on the body.  The list goes on.  Space does not allow us to look at all factors and scenarios to explain the missing body.  In the videos of Session 7.  News Pregnant with Hope: Considering the Death & Resurrection of Jesus I look more thoroughly at several options but in this post I want to briefly consider the most contemplated explanation – that the disciples themselves stole the body from the tomb, hid it somewhere and were then able to mislead others.

Did the disciples steal the body of Jesus?

Let us assume this scenario, avoiding for the sake of argument some of the difficulties in explaining how the discouraged band of disciples who fled for their lives at his arrest, could re-group and come up with a plan to steal the body that totally outwitted the Roman guard.  They then broke the seal, moved the massive rock, and made off with the embalmed body – all without leaving any trace.   Let us assume that they successfully managed to do this and then entered onto the world stage to start a religious faith based on their deception.  Let’s analyze it from here.

Motivation of the Disciples

Many of us today assume that what motivated the first disciples was the need to proclaim brotherhood and love among men – and Christ’s death and (spiritual or metaphorical) resurrection was the catalyst for this message.  But in the book of Acts, recounting events that occurred just weeks after the death of Jesus you can notice that the contentious issue was “the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2).  This theme is paramount in their writings.  Notice how important Paul rates the issue of Christ’s resurrection:

For … I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died …buried, that he wasraised on the third day…  he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless … your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’…  (I Corinthians 15: 3-32)

Clearly (in their minds at least) the disciples placed the importance and their witness of the resurrection of Jesus at the utmost center of their message.   Now, let us assume that this was really false – that these disciples had indeed stolen the body so the counter-evidence against their new message would not put a stop to them.  They may have perhaps been successful in fooling the world, but they themselves would have known that what they were preaching, writing and creating great social upheaval for was basically false.  Yet they gave their lives (literally) for this mission.  Why would they do it – IF they knew that the basis of it was false?  People give their lives to causes (worthwhile and otherwise) because they believe in the cause for which they fight or because they expect some gain from the cause.

Consider the suicide bombers in the Middle East as an example.  This is surely the greatest modern-day example of extreme devotion to a cause – and a dangerous one at that.  Now we disagree with their cause – but they themselves surely believe in the cause for which they are sacrificing themselves and killing others.  They go to the extremes that they do precisely because they believe they will go to paradise after death as a reward for their sacrifice.  Now this belief may be false – but at least they themselves believe it – or they would not give their own lives (and take those of others) on such a drastic wager.  The difference between suicide bombers and the early disciples are that they are not in a position to factually verify their belief, whereas the disciples were.

Consider from their own words what price the disciples paid for the spreading of their message – and ask yourself if you would pay such a personal price for something that you knew to be untrue:

We are hard pressed on every side… perplexed… persecuted, struck down… outwardly we are wasting away…in great endurance, in troubles, hardships, distresses, in beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger… beaten … sorrowful … poor … having nothing… Five times I received from the Jews the 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, … , I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, in the sea.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst… I have been cold and naked… Who is weak and I do not feel weak. (II Corinthians 4: 8– 6:10; 11:24-29)

They believed in their cause – and therefore could not have fabricated a hoax

The more I ponder the unshrinking heroism of all their lives (not one cracked at the bitter end and ‘confessed’), the more I find it impossible that they did not sincerely believe the message they were proclaiming.  But if they believed it – they certainly could not themselves have stolen and disposed of the body of Jesus.  One of the greatest criminal lawyers, who taught law students at Harvard how to probe for weaknesses in witnesses, had this remark to say about this issue:

“The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage.  They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted” (Greenleaf. 1874.  An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. p. 29)

Silence of the Authorities

Related to this is the silence of the enemies of the disciples – Jewish or Roman.  These hostile witnesses never seriously attempted to tell the ‘real’ story, or show how the disciples were wrong.  As Dr. Montgomery states,

“This underscores the reliability of testimony to Christ’s resurrection which was presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case … had the facts been otherwise” (Montgomery. 1975. Legal reasoning and Christian Apologetics.  p. 88-89)

In this brief study we have not had the space to consider every facet of this question.  However, the unwavering boldness of the disciples and the silence of the coexistent hostile witnesses speak volumes that Christ may indeed have risen and that it is worth taking a serious and thoughtful examination.  One way to do so is to view the public presentation I gave on this topic at the University of Wyoming which covers these themes in greater detail.  It is also informative to understand that the extraordinary timing of Jesus’ crucifixion – happening on the Jewish Passover, and its location – being in Jerusalem – had great prophetic meaning in the Old Testament.  It is like the whole sequence of improbable events was the plan of a Mind that could span millennia.