The problem with Easter

This coming Sunday is Easter which commemorates the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Or so I’m told.

Looked at dispassionately, the whole Easter thing is a bit over the top. The idea of vicarious atonement when it comes to things like sacrificing children and virgins to assuage the gods who unleash natural disasters is something we are now horrified about and yet the idea of Jesus having to die to save the rest of us from sin does not seem odd. In fact, many Christians seem to positively relish all the gory details of Jesus’s suffering and death, as can be seen in the commercial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which I did not see since I am not a fan of gratuitous violence.

The other problem with Easter is the whole rising-from-the-dead bit. Now this clearly violates basic laws of biology and so poses a dilemma for those Christians who think their beliefs are compatible with science. Some try to find ways to lift the event out of the realm of the miraculous by postulating naturalistic explanations (Jesus being in a coma or his disciples staging some kind of elaborate hoax) but these don’t really wash. The whole point of the story is the real death and miraculous resurrection. Take away that and there is nothing left.

But that is not the most difficult aspect of the Easter story to believe. True, rising from the dead boggles mind but all it requires is a slight adjustment in one’s thinking. We know that people who have died a peaceful death often look like they are asleep and signs of irreversible bodily decay do not become obvious until a considerable time after death. There are people who have been brought back to life shortly after they have ‘died’ in that their hearts have stopped beating. So the idea that someone could come back to life after being dead for several hours requires just the ability to lengthen the period between death and resuscitation, which is not that hard to do for a determined believer.

But for me the really difficult puzzle to understand is what happened to Jesus’s body after the resurrection. We are told in the Bible that his was a physical resurrection, that his disciples touched him and that he ate food with them. But then, after forty days of hanging around with his disciples, he rose up and disappeared into the clouds.

This physical rising of Jesus’s body has spared us the search for traces of his body, like we have with Noah’s Ark. But this raises the question of where his physical body is now. Is it still floating somewhere in space? Christians believe in a heaven to which their souls go after death and is not part of the same physical universe that we live in. They also believe that Jesus is there and they will meet him after they die. But is he there in his physical body, unlike everyone else and unlike even god? Wouldn’t it be awkward for just Jesus to have a physical body when all the rest were spirits? And how would his physical body have made the transition into the spiritual world?

Catholics have compounded this problem by postulating that Jesus’s mother’s body also did not decay after her death but that it too was assumed into heaven. This was asserted by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 on one of those rare occasions where he was exercising papal infallibility thus making it rigid dogma, but some Christian traditions believed in it even before that.

So now we have two missing physical bodies to be accounted for. But if somehow Jesus and Mary ditched their bodies later in order to be able to enter heaven, where are the bodies now? After going to all that trouble to resurrect Jesus’s physical body and preventing Mary’s body from decomposing, why would god later abandon the bodies to presumably disintegrate in space? What would be the point?

When I have discussions with Christians, I sometimes ask them this question of where Jesus’s body is now. It is interesting to note how the question never seems to have struck them and they are at a loss for a response, usually resorting to some version of the answer that “God took care of it somehow”. I can understand this. When I was a Christian, this question never occurred to me either. In fact it is quite amazing how questions that seem obvious to me to ask now never even crossed my mind then. The habit of probing a theory for its weakness, so natural to me when I was studying science, seemed to desert me when it came to my religious beliefs. Such is the power of compartmentalization.

Interestingly, this seemingly trivial issue of what happened with Jesus’s body was one of the ones that finally pushed me over the edge to abandoning Christianity and becoming an atheist. My disbelief had been growing for a long time for a variety of reasons but it was simple questions like this one that convinced me that Christianity and science were irreconcilable.


  1. sailor1031 says

    I never promised you that it would all make sense! It’s a miracle! Two miracles!!

  2. unbound says

    No, no, no.

    Easter is not about some zombie story. Easter is about bunnies, eggs, and candy. Or at least that is the only Easter I acknowledge anymore, and my kids are happier for it.

  3. slc1 says

    Theologian John Haught opined in his Dover testimony that Yeshua of Nazareth was possibly not physically resurrected but instead appeared to his followers in a vision. As he put it, if there had been a video camera present at the alleged appearances of Yeshua, it would have recorded nothing.

  4. Beth says

    It has always seemed to me that Easter was about the return of spring. It is about the promise of new life, rebirth, etc. I find the resurrection of Christ makes far more sense of as a symbolic myth about those things rather than as a literal rising from the dead.

  5. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I’m pretty sure Jesus’ body is hanging out on Planet Kolob. (At least the Mormons try to answer that question.)

  6. Brad says

    Not sure why you think this particular issue is hard to answer:

    In my evangelical church I was taught that Jesus was resurrected with a “glorified body”. This glorified body, while still physical, has some interresting supernatural characteristics: perfect, without decay, etc. He took this glorified body with him up into heaven.

    I was also taught that all Christians will get a glorified body when we get to heaven.

    Obviously, there are a ton of other issues with the resurrection and other related beliefs, but I don’t see any conflicts with this one specifically.

    The Catholics are clearly nuts about Mary, though. And Papal infallability. And transubstantiation. And a bunch of other stuff 🙂

  7. dan-o says

    As a Christian, in case anyone did not know already, I teach my children the true meaning of Christian based holidays. I do not want my children to think holidays are about gifts but rather a historical event that has great meaning for Christians. I look forward to Easter as this is also a huge get together with my family with over 30 members and of course the hunt for the elusive Easter eggs.

  8. Mano Singham says

    slc1 and Brad,

    The problem is that the Bible says that Jesus ate with his disciples and they touched him and that he was as real then as he was before he died. So that means his body, whether glorified or not, had the same physical characteristics as normal bodies, i.e made up of atoms.

    You can add qualities to this body but you still have the problem of what to do with all those atoms.

    Haught is one of those people who seems to be willing to ignore the plain words of the Bible in his desire to find compatibility with science. If Jesus was not transparent to his disciples, then he would not have been transparent to a video camera, since the optics are the same. Unless he is saying that all the disciples suffered the identical mass hallucination.

  9. says

    The thing that bothers me about Easter is the whole thought that people say God suffered for our sins and died… but he really didn’t. Jesus knew (since he was god after all) that he’d be resurrected in three days. Jesus’s suffering was minor compared to the suffering of, say, one of the thieves next to him. In fact, it was so minor that he died before his legs were broken – when most people who died of crucifixion died because they suffocated AFTER their legs were broken.

    Suffering? More like a splinter.

  10. slc1 says

    I believe that I am quoting Prof. Haught correctly as the same statement has been quoted by others, e.g. Chris Mooney.

    The only implication one can read from the statement, as, to my knowledge, the good professor has not subsequently elaborated on it, is that he is asserting that the Resurrection may not have involved a physical appearance. The implications of that are left to the reader.

  11. scotlyn says

    I knew my son was a born sceptic when at the tender age of two and a half, he expressed himself thusly – “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. Bunnies don’t lay eggs…”

  12. scotlyn says

    Here’s what gets me about this gospel story – the plotline!

    I’m angry at you. I really, really want to be reconciled, but you’ve annoyed me sooo much…I know what I’ll do! I’ll kill my son, that’ll make it all better…!

    Who comes up with these ideas? How does anyone swallow them?

  13. freebird says

    Q: How do you kill a vampire?

    A: Any way you want; you can make up rules for whatever because vampires don’t exist in real life.

    Q: How did the physical body of Jesus get out of the tomb, and how does a physical body go from a physical location (Earth) to a metaphysical one (heaven)?

    A: Any way you want; you can make up rules for whatever because resurrections of this kind don’t happen in real life.

  14. says

    Shalom Mano,

    Make that three bodies lifted up to heaven: Jesus, Mary AND Elijah the prophet (he did it first, and in style…) — 2 Kings 11: 11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven — who Jews the world around will be sending a child to open the door for this Friday night during the Seder.



    p.s. yes, yes, yes, mohammed gets taken up too, but by that point the schtick was just getting old.

  15. John Horstman says

    One possibility: Yahweh suddenly rendered all particles in the physical body he was puppeting (Jesus) as completely wave-like, scattering the energy into space. Getting ‘rid’ of ‘physical matter’ really isn’t a problem – we’ve been splitting atoms for a while now, and we know that seeing things as relatively-fixed particles versus waves is more a matter of the specific context and observer than intrinsic properties of matter/energy. It should go without saying that if the Large Hadron Collider can do it, Yahweh can do it too. If one can swallow the whole thing about different ‘planes’ or ‘realms’ of existence or whatever, disappearing a couple of bodies doesn’t really pose much of a problem.

  16. brucecoppola says

    It’s very simple. Elijah, Jesus, Mary and Mohammed were just the start of the orbital debris problem we have to worry about every time we launch a spacecraft. Another way religion screws everything up!

    Then again, when you see a meteor, maybe it’s one of Mohammed’s molars or something.

  17. James says

    Jesus was a zombie. The bible was the first B movie script.

    “What would zombie Jesus do?”

    Jesus and the shambling hoard of apostles.

    Oh, I’m ordering zombie movies from Netflix for this Sunday so I can observe the holiday. This is too funny.

  18. mnb0 says

    Except that the rising from the death is not a historical event, but a mythological one. It was a well known theme in Antiquity. For instance Greek mythology is riddled with resurrections, so now you know where the authors of the Gospels might have found their inspiration.
    It’s typical christian pride to think that Jesus’ resurrection was anything special.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    If we knew exactly when and where JC lifted off from the planet, with a little bit of linear extrapolation we could figure out the general astronomical location of heaven (depending on whether he allowed mere Coriolis forces to affect his trajectory).

    With a body made of atoms, even under continuous acceleration he’d have to less than 2,000 light-years out. As he asymptotically approaches a velocity of c, his near-infinite effective mass should produce detectable effects in stellar/planetary orbits, and possibly even gravitational lensing. Possibly Hubble or Kepler could observe some such phenomena, but I think we need a special, dedicated research mission (if they don’t have room for it in Gingrich’s lunar base, David Coppedge could run it from JPL).

    Personally, I crave to know whether Jesus flies through space with both arms forward like Superman, just one forward like Green Lantern, or with both backward like Falcon.

    Go Jesus Go!

  20. Henry Gale says

    If Christ had a perfect glorified body upon resurrection, why did he have a scar that he proudly showed off to the guard?

  21. Leo McDevitt says

    Easter is another holiday that Christians ripped off from the Pagans, that’s where the bunny and eggs come from.

    Ostara – The REAL Easter – is a Pagan celebration of Spring, it acknowledges the promise of thee new beginning offered by Spring. Christians essentially “tweaked” their story to fit.

  22. 'Tis Himself says

    If Jesus is god then he couldn’t die. It’s in the basic god contract, no dying. Jesus spends an uncomfortable afternoon hanging around the cross. He gets stuffed in a tomb just before sunset on Friday. Day and a half later some folks come to the tomb and Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is all better. That’s the sort of thing gods are supposed to do. Osiris did it first, only his body was sliced and diced and spread over the countryside. His wife had to collect all the pieces and then utter the magic words: “Osiris, pull yourself together.” That’s a lot more impressive then walking out of a tomb.

    Besides, if Ol’ Yahweh is pissed off then there’s easier ways to get un-pissed off. According to the propaganda Yahweh is omnipotent. So he could just poof himself all better. No sacrifice needed.

    Nope, I just can’t get a handle on the redemption story. It has more plot holes than an Ed Wood movie.

  23. JSC_ltd says

    I tend to think of questions like this one as–unfortunately–falling into the realm of being logically answered in an “in-universe” style.

    For example, ask any Trekker (e.g., me) how the warp drive works, and you’ll get a pretty coherent answer that is yet totally devoid of compliance with reality. It is, however, internally consistent and therefore immune from disruption by such mundane inconveniences as facts. So too with Christianity; Jesus’s body was real, because a couple of the Gospels (John and Luke? I forget) say he ate and was touched by a few, forty, thousands of people. Where did it go when Jesus ascended? Why, God poofed it away, because God can do anything. The problem of the vanishing Christ is thereby dealt with with a minimum of cognitive dissonance.

    A more fruitful way of demonstrating the falsity of the Christian Easter story is to focus on the internal inconsistencies. For example, I like to ask why God had to sacrifice himself to himself to make himself feel better about the behavior of his own creations. Or why Judas Iscariot or Pontius Pilate are not venerated for bringing it about. This is akin to asking a Trekker why the phaser comes from the photon torpedo tube in “Darmok.” It’s the kind of forehead-slapping, curtain-pulling-aside moment that initiates critical thinking and the slow erosion of the brain’s capability to accept shoddy writing.

  24. Donovan of NH says

    I never thought of that. I mean, I get the idea behind the rapture, that all the people will go to heaven, but they say they will be physically taken, rising up into the sky. To where? Where are they going? Heaven? Can we see it then? Would a powerful enough telescope, say Hubble, be able to see Jesus and Mary, asses and elbows, flying away from earth? Will people raptured in Australia or Argentina have to sink down first before rising to the Eurocentric heaven? Would the axial tilt possibly send people off in the wrong direction by the dumb luck of being in the wrong time zone, or is there some sort of soul homing beacon? I’m suddenly bursting with curiosity.

  25. Scott says

    I think originally people believed Heaven was a physical place, somewhere up in the sky, so when the gospels were written, it was easy enough to say where his body went. Now they’d have to come up with something a bit more fanciful.

    What I really want to know is, if the blood stains on the Shroud of Turin are real, how come they haven’t cloned Jesus?

  26. left0ver1under says

    The other problem with Easter is the whole rising-from-the-dead bit. Now this clearly violates basic laws of biology and so poses a dilemma for those Christians who think their beliefs are compatible with science.

    Why be surprised that easter and April Fool’s day occur around the same time?


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