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Gospel Disproof #36: Jesus and Lazarus

One mistake a lot of people make is to assume that Christians have always believed the same Gospel. If we look more closely, however, we can see evidence in the New Testament itself that suggests the resurrection story has evolved significantly, especially in the early decades of the Church. A good way to highlight this evolution is to compare the resurrection stories about Jesus with the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.

The story of Lazarus is a good benchmark to use because it is contemporary with the story of Jesus, it’s an orthodox Christian story, and it reflects the popular cultural understanding of what “resurrection” meant in real-world terms. When we look at the story of Lazarus, then, what do we find? First of all, they have to remove the stone from in front of the tomb so that Lazarus can come out. Secondly, when he does come out, he’s bound hand-and-foot in the burial wrappings, and has to have someone help him out of them. Lastly, when the wrappings come off, hey look! It’s the man they buried.

The resurrection of Lazarus is just what you would expect a literal, physical resurrection to be. Bringing someone back from the dead means that the same body whose lungs quit breathing and whose heart stopped beating and whose muscles stopped moving suddenly resume all those functions again. They never could walk through doors before, so they can’t do so now. They can’t simply pass through their bindings before, so they can’t do so now. They couldn’t change their appearance before, so… well, you get the idea.

According to the modern Christian understanding, the resurrection of Jesus was supposed to be a literal, physical resurrection. The body that was buried is the body that was raised. The Jesus who died is the same Jesus who rose. We’re supposed to be able to reach out and physically touch him, if he actually shows up. And yet, none of that is really true. The Gospels are full of stories that are plainly ghost stories, about a Jesus who could walk through doors, and change his appearances so that even his closest friends could not recognize him. And notice, too, that when the angel(s) came down and rolled away the stone, they were exposing a tomb that was already empty. According to the story, neither the burial wrappings nor the stone were any obstacle to his departure.

In the earliest epistles, the Apostle Paul explains that this is because Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, and goes on to argue, at some length, that the body you bury is not the body that gets resurrected. “Flesh and blood,” he tells us, “cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” The resurrection of Jesus is the kind of resurrection that gives rise to questions like, “How are the dead raised?” and “With what kind of body do they come?” precisely because it is not the kind of literal, physical resurrection resurrection that Lazarus is supposed to have had.

Since that time, of course, Christians have decided that Jesus really was literally, physically raised from the dead, and so, in typical Christian fashion, they simply included that in their theology, without ever rejecting the earlier, conflicting notion of a spiritual resurrection. The literal, physical resurrection is somehow also a spiritual resurrection, and the spiritual resurrection is somehow physical—despite Paul’s explicit admonition about flesh and blood. Sure, that’s a troubling inconsistency, but then that’s what faith is all about: overlooking the inconsistencies and just trusting that God will make it all turn out all right some day.

Meanwhile, the evidence remains. The resurrection of Lazarus shows us what a real, literal, physical resurrection was supposed to look like, and the resurrection stories are nothing like that at all. The original Gospels were about a spiritual resurrection, and the Gospel evolved away from that because believers themselves found it ultimately unconvincing.

Comments

  1. David Evans says

    I don’t think this is a strong argument. If Christianity were true, Jesus would be radically different from every other man who ever lived, being God as well as man (whatever that means). It would not be surprising if his resurrection were also different.

  2. davidct says

    Does WLC discuss this discrepancy. It would be interesting to know the “party line” rationalization. One can be sure there is one from some source. Contradictions in the bible are never accepted as anything but some kind of misinterpretation by the faithful. The contradictions may be fixed but the rationalizations can go from stupid to very creative.

  3. says

    Interesting.

    I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the claim that everyone will literally be raised from the dead when Jesus returns.

    It’s in the Nicene Creed (I dutifully recited it every Sunday for years, despite not believing a word of it). It’s infused throughout the bible. Revelation positively revels in the bloodthirstiness of the event.

    Somehow, the concept of literal resurrection of every person who ever died — followed by judgement — has gone quietly away. Replaced in the main by a belief that when you die, your soul gets sorted into heaven or hell. That’s what my Christian friends think — the concept of a literal bodily resurrection is a very strange concept for them. Despite the fact that they say the same creed as I did, or one very similar to it.

    Now, I know there are sectarian differences in what churches preach — but seems to me that the belief in the concept of a literal bodily resurrection is pretty much confined to the loony-tunes branches of Christianity these days. Jehovah’s Witlesses and the like.

    When did that happen? It must be relatively recently. Or is this yet another disconnect between what religion teaches and adherents are willing to believe?

    • franciscalvert says

      Lazarus is alive and well today. He is over 2000 years old and his body is as it was before he died. Whether he is an ordinary human or more like a god is not known. He can heal with a touch or kill if he wants to. All through the middle ages he keeps popping up in crucial places in history. The CIA has known about him for some time and would desperately like to get their paws on him but he is too smart to ever be caught As for me, I have sworn an oath never to disclose his whereabouts. When the time is right he will reveal himself to the world. Long Live Lazarus.

  4. Jayman says

    [I]t [the Lazarus story] reflects the popular cultural understanding of what “resurrection” meant in real-world terms.

    No it doesn’t. It reflects an understanding of resuscitation. A resuscitated individual dies, comes back to life, and then dies again. A resurrected individual dies and is raised to eternal life. Lazarus has not yet been resurrected to eternal life.

    The Gospels are full of stories [about Jesus' resurrection] that are plainly ghost stories…

    If it was so plain then why did everyone misinterpret the accounts? Seems more likely that 21st century atheists are misreading the stories. The ancients knew of ghost stories just as well as we do. They explicitly deny that Jesus’ appearances were the appearances of a ghost (Lk 24:37-39). The tomb would not be empty if Jesus returned as a ghost (Mt 28:1-7, 11-15; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-12, 22-24; Jn 20:1-10). The disciples would not be able to touch Jesus if he was a ghost (Mt 28:9; Lk 24:39-40; Jn 20:17, 20, 27-28). Jesus would not be able to eat food if he was a ghost (Lk 24:41-43; Jn 21:10-14).

    In the earliest epistles, the Apostle Paul explains that this is because Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, and goes on to argue, at some length, that the body you bury is not the body that gets resurrected. “Flesh and blood,” he tells us, “cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”

    If Jewish belief at the time was that a resurrected body was a physical body then why does Paul use that terminology to describe Jesus’ resurrection? Why does he refer to a body at all? Isn’t the phrase “flesh and blood” a Jewish idiom for the weakness of the human body that you are taking far too literally? How does your interpretation of 1 Cor 15 mesh with other passages from Paul implying a physical resurrection? It seems that interpreting 1 Cor 15 to be contrasting the glorified resurrection body with our current bodies does far more justice to all these questions than your interpretation.

    The resurrection of Jesus is the kind of resurrection that gives rise to questions like, “How are the dead raised?” and “With what kind of body do they come?” precisely because it is not the kind of literal, physical resurrection resurrection that Lazarus is supposed to have had.

    No, it’s because Jesus was raised to eternal life while Lazarus was not.

    Sure, that’s a troubling inconsistency, but then that’s what faith is all about: overlooking the inconsistencies and just trusting that God will make it all turn out all right some day.

    Don’t you realize these kinds of comments often backfire? A traditional interpretation of the Pauline epistles and the Gospels fit the evidence well. Your interpretation, especially of the Gospels, blatantly contradicts the texts themselves.

    The original Gospels were about a spiritual resurrection, and the Gospel evolved away from that because believers themselves found it ultimately unconvincing.

    Where are these “original Gospels”? Clearly they can’t be the canonical Gospels since they all attest an empty tomb and thereby imply a physical resurrection. Since the canonical Gospels are the earliest extant Gospels then what evidence is there that they evolved at all? This sounds like pure conjecture on your part.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Jayman, welcome back.

      No it doesn’t. It reflects an understanding of resuscitation. A resuscitated individual dies, comes back to life, and then dies again. A resurrected individual dies and is raised to eternal life. Lazarus has not yet been resurrected to eternal life.

      Splitting hairs doesn’t really change anything, because we can just as easily discuss the situation in terms of raising the dead. The story of Lazarus is the story of someone being raised from the dead literally and physically. The story of Jesus is about someone being raised from the dead spiritually and intangibly. Jesus’ antics after his alleged resurrection are really no different from the things typically ascribed to God: taking different forms, appearing and disappearing, taking on physical attributes (e.g. so that he could wrestle with Jacob) etc. And God, we’re told, is a spirit—not a resurrected mortal. The “body” of Jesus is the same as the “body” of God. It’s not a literal, physical raising of the flesh, it’s a spirit. You can call the physical resurrection “resuscitation” if you prefer, but either way it’s not what Jesus got.

      The tomb would not be empty if Jesus returned as a ghost…

      On the other hand, if the tomb were empty—if, say, some minor group of disciples removed it without the apostles’ knowledge or consent—then the shocking absence of the body could very easily provoke rumors of a ghostly resurrection, some of which we find recorded in the Gospels.

      Where are these “original Gospels”? Clearly they can’t be the canonical Gospels since they all attest an empty tomb and thereby imply a physical resurrection.

      I’m referring to the oral Gospel stories that were circulating prior to the emergence of the written documents.

      • jayman777 says

        DD:

        Splitting hairs doesn’t really change anything

        It isn’t splitting hairs to note that Lazarus was raised only to die again while Christ was raised to eternal life. This difference is relevant for the differences between the account of Lazarus and the account of Jesus. Merely noting the difference is not sufficient to conclude that Jesus’ body was not physical.

        The story of Jesus is about someone being raised from the dead spiritually and intangibly.

        One can only accept that if he ignores the many problems I raised with this hypothesis.

        You can call the physical resurrection “resuscitation” if you prefer, but either way it’s not what Jesus got.

        Both a resuscitation and a resurrection involve a physical body being raised from the dead. A resuscitated person will die again. A resurrected person will not die again. In the first-century Jewish context, a resurrection was (nearly?) always conceived as the raising of a physical body.

        On the other hand, if the tomb were empty—if, say, some minor group of disciples removed it without the apostles’ knowledge or consent—then the shocking absence of the body could very easily provoke rumors of a ghostly resurrection, some of which we find recorded in the Gospels.

        It’s interesting that Mary Magdalene did not jump to the conclusion that Jesus was spiritually resurrected. Her first thought was about where was the corpse was moved to (John 20:11-18). And why would a missing body provoke rumors of a “ghostly resurrection”? Surely Jesus’ ghost could be “resurrected” regardless of where his corpse was. The empty tomb fits better with the physical resurrection hypothesis than the spiritual resurrection hypothesis.

        I’m referring to the oral Gospel stories that were circulating prior to the emergence of the written documents.

        By what method did you ascertain the contents of this oral gospel?

      • KG says

        1 Corinthians 15 is generally considered to be earlier than any of the gospels. Paul makes no distinction there other than that of timing between the appearances to Mary Magdalene, the apostles, and the alleged 500 witnesses on the one hand, and what happened to him on the road to Damascus on the other. The latter is clearly not the appearance of a physical body, since those with him (and possibly Paul himself, it is not explicit in Acts 9:3-4 whether he saw more than a “light from heaven”) heard a voice, but “saw no man”.

    • freebird says

      This post addresses one of the most overlooked details of the whole resurrection story: how did Jesus’ physical body get out of the tomb? A physical body went in, then the tomb was discovered empty. Did the body magically walk through the stone walls? Is that an acceptable alternative to “the body was moved by someone after being put in the tomb” or “the body was not put in the tomb in the first place”?

      If you go a dead friends funeral and later you see an empty casket, what’s more likely – that the body was moved or that your friend has been resurrected? How does that likelihood change if another of your friends claim to have seen your dead friend alive even though you did not? What if your friend tells you that if you don’t believe his story about seeing your dead friend alive, he’ll punish you forever?

      The nail in the coffin for the resurrection of Jesus story is that a real God would recognize that the best way to convince people that Jesus had been resurrected is if Jesus was still sitting there in the tomb when the stone was rolled away.

      Big claims require big evidence, and the evidence is ghost storyish at best.

  5. CJO says

    Of course, there’s no suggestion that Lazarus won’t die again at a later point. His is a resuscitation, not a resurrection to immortality.

    And the nature of immortality is where the absurdities creep in, and the contradictions have a lot to do with differing ancient notions of the nature of the soul or whatever part of a man could “inherit eternal life” because clearly it wasn’t the ordinary old body that was seen by everybody to decay quickly after death.

    The different notions were these: to the Greeks, one’s body was inhabited, possessed, by a soul (ψυχή, psuche, mind, soul, the root of English “psyche”). The psuche was naturally immortal, having nothing of the material or physical about it, and the body was merely a shell, a container for a soul.

    The traditional Jewish belief was opposed. A person wasn’t a soul inhabiting a body, one was a body and a mind, animated by a soul, or a nephesh, the most common translation of which is simply “person, creature” but which also meant “breath” and it was derived from the verb for “to breathe”. (Similar in one sense to Greek pneuma, “spirit” but lit. “breath, wind”.) The problem for integration of Greek ideas of resurrection and immortality was that souls were not separable from persons. Since Christianity was precisely an attempt to syncretize Greek ideas with aspects of Jewish belief, the solutions to this conundrum are various and paradoxical, like Paul’s “spiritual body”

    (We find here also the reason for the difference in burial practices between the cultures. The root of Jews’ obsession with family tombs, ossuaries for collecting bones, and the abhorrence of cremation was the belief that in order to be available at the End of Days for judgment, one’s intact and identifiable remains would have to be located. Ancient Jews understood the Greek practice of cremation as an attempt by the impious to escape judgment.)

    • Azuma Hazuki says

      CJO, you have GOT to write a book or something, or at least start a blog here on FtB where each post is an infodump like that.

      Also, the idea of someone thinking they could escape an omni$ATTRIBUTE God’s wrath by disposing of their corpse strikes me as hilarious, naive, and pathetic at once.

    • Tony says

      “(We find here also the reason for the difference in burial practices between the cultures. The root of Jews’ obsession with family tombs, ossuaries for collecting bones, and the abhorrence of cremation was the belief that in order to be available at the End of Days for judgment, one’s intact and identifiable remains would have to be located. …”

      -and their god is omnipotent…how? He couldn’t locate Adam in the garden. He couldn’t create a world free of evil and natural suffering. Now he needs identifiable remains to fully judge believers at the end of days. I wonder what he’s going to do when there isn’t much left to identify people with. As he’s not omnipotent, maybe he’ll just guess.

  6. CJO says

    Understand that Jews thought it was absurd too. Think of it as an expression of Jews’ belief that those who would worship idols of stone or wood had a limited view of the divine. They seem to have believed that pagans thought gods could be deceived; they failed to appreciate that the Lord of Hosts was the ruler of the entire cosmos.

    Of course, on the flip side, pagan elites dismissed the fear and awe inspired by Eastern despotic deities as superstition and a clear confirmation of the barbarians’ inherently servile nature. In the Greco-Roman world, the traditional gods were super-powerful patrons, the guarantors of peaceful and prosperous civic life and the social order. A free man did not debase himself with fear in the presence of such; he gave honor to his superiors as he would to a beneficent ruler. To participate in the rituals and feasts was in turn to have a share of that honor.

    Small wonder that the “Hellenization” of Judaeans and Judaism was so fraught.

    • KG says

      It seems inconsistent for the Jews to find absurd the belief they (wrongly) attributed to the Greeks (that those cremated could avoid judgement); and yet to be very concerned that their own remains should be unburned and easily located.

      • CJO says

        Well, I may be over-psychologizing or using anachronistic terms. I think the way an ancient Jew would express it would simply be to say that you’re effectively condemned if your remains aren’t intact and labeled for judgment. So, the idea that you could escape condemnation is absurd, but if you’re a Jew and you want to face God’s judgment for the reason that you believe you will not be condemned, then you hope that your family handles your remains correctly.

  7. Ysidro says

    There’s a difference between Raise Dead, Reincarnation, and Resurrection. It’s in the Player’s Handbook! Sheesh.

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