The Entombment of Christ by Carl Bloch

The Entombment of Christ by Carl Bloch

If you have not read Part I, click here.

If you have not read Part II, click here


In this post, the Subjective Vision (Hallucination) Theory,  The Objective Vision Theory, and The Interpretation Theory will be examined critically.

None of the arguments are knock-down arguments. What we are looking for is the best explanation. This is a mode of reasoning which philosophers call inference to the best explanation. This is a comparative sort of study. We will compare the available theories, then we will decide which one is the best theory. I will argue that the literal theory best meets the criteria for being the best explanation better than any of the other theories.   What the critic or sceptic has to say is that one of the other theories is to be preferred because the Literal Theory is defective.  This usually requires some type of ani-supernaturalist move, such as one cannot appeal to miracles or supernatural explanations. However, skepticism isn’t warranted if you have a hypothesis that has enough explanatory power, explanatory scope, is not ad-hoc, and is plausible. If one still argues against a hypothesis that meets all four requirements, then it is just being plain stubborn to resist the inference to the best explanation to the data.

The Subjective Vision (Hallucination) Theory

The Subjective Vision Theory is the view that asserts the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus after His death.   Perhaps this was brought on by the guilt from having denied Jesus during His hour of need, so, as a compensatory mechanism, they projected hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead. Deceived by these hallucinations,  they came to actually believe Jesus had been risen from the dead.

There are three fatal flaws with this theory:

  1. It is psychologically implausible. There is nothing in the psychological case books that is comparable to the resurrection appearances of Jesus. These appearances, we know from the information given by Paul as well as what we find in the four Gospels, were not just to one person at one time under one circumstance;  they were to multiple individuals. They were also at different times, different locales, and in different circumstances. Furthermore, the appearances were not just to believers, but also to unbelievers – people like James, the younger brother of Jesus (or cousin if you are Catholic) who held no belief in Jesus during His  lifetime;   Thomas who was skeptical about the resurrection of Jesus;  and Saul of Tarsus who was the chief persecutor of the early church.   In order to find something comparable to the resurrection of Jesus, what you have to do is cobble together various anecdotes from several places within the psychological literature to make a composite picture to explain away these resurrection appearances. There is literally nothing within the psychological literature of a series of psychological hallucinations which would be comparable to the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore the Subjective Theory is really implausible psychologically.
  2. It is explanatorily inadequate (lacks explanatory power). Let’s assume the earliest disciples did have hallucinations of Jesus. What is important to understand about a hallucination is that, as a projection of what is in one’s own mind, a hallucination cannot contain something that is not already in one’s mind. It is a projection of the contents of what is in your own mind into an external reality. Given the Jewish frame of thought as well as their experiences, if the disciples would have projected hallucinations of Jesus after His death, they would have projected visions of Jesus in glory in Abraham’s bosom (this is where Jewish people believed the righteous dead went to await the resurrection at the end of the world). The disciples, if they were hallucinating visions of Jesus, would have had visions of Jesus in glory with God in heaven. They would not have hallucinated Jesus as literally risen from the dead which goes contrary to Jewish beliefs.  At most, it would have led to the belief that God had assumed Jesus into heaven, and in heaven He would have appeared to them. Even, given the empty tomb, that would not imply  the resurrection of Jesus; it would at most imply the assumption of Jesus into heaven. In Jewish thought the idea of an assumption or a translation into heaven is a completely different category than resurrection of the dead. In the Old Testament, certain people like Elijah and Enoch were thought to be taken up directly into heaven. In the extra-biblical book, The Testament of Job, ch. 9, there’s a story of a young mother whose children are killed in the collapse of a house. When the rescuers come and finally remove the ruble, they don’t find the bodies of the children. Thereafter the mother experiences a vision of the children in heaven where they have gone to be with God. Her heart is reassured because her children are with God. That’s how Jewish mentality would project visions of Jesus subsequent to His death, even given the fact of the empty tomb. The idea of a resurrection, by contrast, is the bodily raising up of the dead person in the space-time universe in which we live. So, the proclamation of the disciples that God raised Jesus from the dead would remain unexplained, even given the hypotheses that they had hallucinations of Jesus after His death.
  3. The empty tomb needs to be explained (lacks explanatory scope). The Subjective Vision Theory has to assume the empty tomb is merely a legend – a late development. But we will see that the empty tomb narrative is part of the earliest material in the New Testament; it belongs to some of the earliest stratum of traditions about Jesus. Therefore most New Testament scholars today are convinced that the empty tomb narrative, found in The Gospels, is fundamentally reliable. This empty tomb narrative cannot be explained by the hallucination hypothesis. In order to explain the full scope of the evidence, you have to have some other hypothesis conjoined with the Subjective Vision Theory to get rid of the body in the tomb. Now the theory becomes less simple. It is no longer an over arching explanation that covers all the data. Rather, it has a narrow explanatory scope that only tries to explain the appearances. It doesn’t explain the fact of the empty tomb;  therefore it fails to have an adequate explanatory scope.


The Objective Vision Theory

This is a more subtle view and is one that really is a resurrection view. The view is that what God gave to the disciples was not a real physical bodily appearance of Jesus, but rather veridical visions of Jesus – visions of Jesus in glory where God had raised Him from the dead. These visions were objective in the sense that people were seeing Jesus, but it was not as if there were photons bouncing off physical objects and binding to their retinas. On the other hand, these weren’t projections from their minds either and that is why it is different from the Subjective Vision Theory. Instead these were God-induced visions of Jesus who was no longer dead, but was raised from the dead. Sometimes these theorists will even believe in the empty tomb. They will say that God transformed the body of Jesus in the tomb into a spiritual body that  was immaterial, invisible, and non-physical and then gave the disciples these visions of the glorified Christ.  Other times they will say that the physical body remained in the tomb and decayed and waisted away, but God raised Jesus in a spiritual body which is distinct from, and non-identical to the corpse in the tomb and then the disciples had these visions of Jesus in His spiritual existence. This is definitely a super-natural type of theory. It differs from the resurrection view in that it does not think the body in the tomb was raised to glory and immortality in a physical tangible way or that the disciples experienced it in that way.  It is a visionary experience that the disciples had, but not a subjective visionary experience. It is one that is induced by God and they are really seeing the spiritual Jesus.

What critique might be offered of the Objective Vision Theory? It has already been discussed a bit when the biblical data was reviewed regarding the resurrection. Let’s review some of the points:

1. Paul held to a physical resurrection body. The strategy of those that hold the view that what the disciples saw was just a spiritual body is to try to drive a wedge between Paul and the four Gospels. What they try to say is that the information that Paul provides is earlier and therefore more reliable. Whereas the resurrection stories found in The Gospels are later, which clearly show a physical and tangible body, are later developments. Those that hold this view will say, if you look at the really early material (which is mainly the writings of Paul), Paul believes in a spiritual not a literal, physical resurrection body. This is based upon a horrible mis-exegesis of what Paul means by “spiritual” body as seen in 1 Corinthians 15:44. Paul speaks of a soma pneumatikon which is a “body spiritual”. He contrasts this with a natural body or a soma psychikonPsychikon comes from the Greek word psuché which means soul; in English this word often comes to us commonly as psyche. So a soma pychikon literally means a “soulish body.” When Paul says we now have a soulish body, he obviously didn’t mean our bodies were made out of soul. He is not speaking of there constitution. The word psychikon usually has a negative connotation in the New Testament. It usually describes the corruptible bodies that we posses, bodies that are animated by the human soul; it is not just the human body. It is talking about its orientation, not its constitution. The soulish body is naturally oriented towards human nature. Similarly, the word, pneúma, from which we get pneumatikon, means spirit. So when Paul says we will be raised with a spiritual body, he doesn’t mean a body made out of spirit any more than he means a body made out of psychikon or soul. Rather, the body made out of spirit is given in contrast to a body made out of nature. It is a body that is free from the effects of death, sin, and mortality. It is the same idea as when we say the Bible is a spiritual book,  we don’t mean it is intangible; or when  we say Paul was a spiritual man, we don’t mean he was intangible, but oriented towards things of the spirit.

The decisive proof of this would be in 1 Corinthians 2:14 when Paul speaks of the anthropos psychikos (natural man) in contrast to the anthropos pneumatikos (spiritual man).  Obviously the spiritual man does not mean an invisible, intangible man.  The natural man doesn’t mean a man made out of soul.  Paul is speaking of their orientation.  This attempt to drive a wedge between Paul and the Gospels, on this notion, is just disastrous.   It is a fundamental misinterpretation of the terms.  Paul believed in the resurrection of the body.  This body will be supernatural, immortal, glorious, powerful, and free from the effects of sin that dominates the soma psychikon.   In Paul’s view, we will be saved from our sinfulness, not from the body’s materiality.

2. Paul and the rest of the New Testament also draw a strong distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus. This is not merely a difference in vocabulary;  this is a conceptual distinction between the two. Paul’s experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus had extra-mental features to it that made it an appearance and not just a vision. It appears that even Paul’s traveling companions experienced something extra-mental – they either saw a light or heard a voice (Acts 9:1-9; Acts 22:2-9Acts 26:8-16). The resurrection appearances ceased soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul says that the appearance to him was “last of all” (1 Corinthians 15:8) . It was the last resurrection appearance there was in the New Testament. Even then, it was about three years after the crucifixion. However, visions of Jesus continued in the church. Paul talks about the visions he had. The Book of Revelation speaks of a vision of Jesus on a throne in Heaven. We see that visions of Jesus continued in the early church, but the resurrection appearances ceased soon after the crucifixion.

What is the difference between a resurrection appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus? When one reads the New Testament, the answer is clear. Only a resurrection appearance involved a physical body appearing as the object perceived. A vision of Jesus is not something that was seen in the external world;  it was just in one’s mind. A contrast here would be the resurrection appearance to Paul, which had physical accompaniments in the real world – the light, the voice, etc. Some of these physical accompaniments were even experienced by Paul’s traveling companions. Contrast that with Stephen’s visionary experience in Acts 7, where he sees the heavens open and he sees the Son of Man at the right hand of God. No one else saw anything. He was not seeing a resurrection appearance of Jesus, he was having a vision of Jesus. The difference between the two is that the appearances were in the external world (involving physical, tangible objects), whereas the visions were things purely in the mind. What the Objective Vision Theory has done is confused what a vision and an appearance are. What the Objective Vision Theory is purporting are actually visionary experiences, not resurrection appearances. The fact that the New Testament makes a clear distinction between these two becomes impossible to understand within the confines of the Objective Vision Theory. If the original appearances were just visions, then this distinction that the New Testament draws between the two becomes incomprehensible.

The attempt to drive a wedge between Paul and the Gospels on this (visions of Jesus vs. appearances of Jesus) is really quite hopeless. Paul’s doctrine of the spiritual body is the doctrine of a spiritually-dominated, powerful, resurrection body. The distinction between an appearance and a vision of Jesus is best understood by saying visions are purely in the mind, in the subjective realm, and appearances of Jesus were in the three-demensional, spacial, world. Moreover, The Gospels give very good reason for believing these resurrection appearances were bodily appearances.The Gospels are unanimous in portraying the resurrection appearances as being physical, bodily appearances. This would be astonishing if none of the original appearances were physical, bodily appearances. This would be an unbelievable corruption of the oral tradition in so short of time – to say that the original series of vision experiences were corrupted in the presence of the eyewitnesses, during their lifetime to a unanimous testimony of physical resurrection stories. The unanimity of The Gospels gives us very good reasons for thinking that the resurrection appearances were in fact physical bodily appearances.

3.The skeptics will say that the resurrection appearance stories in the Gospels were motivated by an anti-docetic apologetic on the part of the evangelists. Docetism was an early heresy that claimed that Jesus didn’t really become incarnate physically. He merely had the appearance of a human body. It comes from the Greek word dokeō, which means “to seem” or “to appear.” According to the docetic view, there wasn’t really a physical incarnation;  it was all just an appearance of an incarnation. This is driven by a sort of Gnostic view that the world is evil and so God cannot be associated with the material world so it was all just a phantasm and an appearance. The claim is that the

Carl Bloch  The Doubting Thomas

Carl Bloch The Doubting Thomas

resurrection appearance stories are an anti-docetic apologetic. What are the problems with this?

 a. This is implausible because the resurrection stories pre-date Docetism. Docetism is a heresy that arrived sometime later in the 1st century whereas the Gospel resurrection stories go back to the earliest materials in the New Testament. Therefore they cannot be a response to Docetism. Docetism was originally a response to the physical stories of Jesus of Nazareth.

b.  If there were originally just objective vision stories, then there would be not reason to oppose Docetism. Docetism wouldn’t be a threat then. Docetism would be right. If they were just objective visions, there would be no reason to materialize these into physical appearances; you would just accept  the visionary stories.

c. Having resurrection appearances that are bodily and physical are quite irrelevant to Docetism. Docetism denied the incarnation. It did not hold that Jesus was physical up until the resurrection and then there were somehow these phantasms of these appearances. Sometimes Gnostics would say that the spirit of God left Jesus at the crucifixion and then the physical body of Jesus was raised from the dead. It is just irrelevant to Docetism because Docetists didn’t deny the physicality of the appearances; what they denied was the incarnation all together.

d. The stories lack the rigor of an anti-docetic apologetic. The physicality of the stories is just the natural supposition of the stories; Jesus comes to them and He appears to them. Even in the story of Thomas where Thomas is invited to put forth his hands and probe Jesus’ wounds, Thomas doesn’t do so (John 20:27-29). He just falls on his feet as says, “My Lord and my God.” If it were an anti-docetic apologetic, you would have to do more than Jesus just showing them his wounds. That could just be an objective experience too. If it were an anti-docetic apologetic, the disciples would have to physically handle Jesus and accept His invitation. Instead it is just the natural pre-supposition of the stories that Jesus is appearing physically and bodily. The stories just don’t really have the rigor that would be required if this were motivated by an apologetic against Docetism.

In The Gospels and in Paul we have good grounds for affirming physical resurrection appearances. To say otherwise would simply be an ad-hoc polemic. That goes right to the heart of the Objection Vision Theory.

The Interpretation theory

The idea that something dramatic happened to the disciples is know as the Interpretation Theory. The transformation of their lives and the birth of the Christian church requires

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: The Stoning of St Stephen

some sort of dramatic event that brought about this change. But we don’t know what it was, and the disciples were unable to articulate exactly what it was, so for want of a better term, they latched onto the Jewish concept of the resurrection from the dead. So they said God raised Jesus from the dead and that was their way of expressing this incredible experience they had that led them to continue to believe in Christ. Therefore,  resurrection should not be taken literally. It was just a sort of metaphorical way of speaking about this dramatic experience they had.

N.T. Wright., in his massive study of the resurrection, entitled, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” has done a very good job of criticizing this theory. Wright first points out that the idea of saying that a man has risen from the dead as an articulation of some sort of ongoing experience or belief in Him is uterly un-Jewish.  Wright says that nobody was expecting this kind of thing. No kind of conversion experience would have generated such ideas. Nobody would have invented it no matter how guilty or forgiven they felt;  to suggest otherwise would be historically inaccurate.  In Judaism the word resurrection meant the raising up of the dead man’s corpse from the grave to new life and immortality, and this would occur at the end of times.  You wouldn’t latch upon that to express some sort of forgiveness of sin or feeling of redemption in Judaism.

The second point that Wright makes is that there were other categories available in Jewish thought that could express properly such ideas so that there would be no need to use this misleading term of resurrection. Wright tells us that Judaism had plenty of categories for talking about divine forgiveness. Declaring one’s recently executed leader was the Messiah or that he had in any sense, been raised from the dead was not one of them. There were other categories available that would have properly expressed their experience, and they didn’t use them. What they could have said was that God had exalted Jesus to heaven rather than saying that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Wright says that the idea that there was originally no difference for the earliest Christians between resurrection and exaltation is a 20th century fiction. To believe the Interpretation Theory, what one has to believe is that there was no early belief in resurrection at all since the word resurrection was not used to denote a non-bodily extension of life in a heavenly realm, however glorious. Plenty of words existed to denote heavenly exaltation and resurrection was never one of them. One has to postulate that at one point someone began to use (to denote this belief) language that had never meant resurrection before and continued not to mean it in either paganism, Judaism, or Christianity and that other people who knew resurrection meant “bodies” nevertheless acquiesced in this usage.

The Interpretation Theory is a clear case of an ad-hoc hypothesis. The evidence simply doesn’t support the Interpretation Theory. The disciples would have simply been completely un-Jewish to adopt language of “resurrection from the dead” to express their experience. There were other categories of Jewish thought and vocabulary that could have been used to express their experience, and resurrection was not one of them. Furthermore, as pointed out in the Conspiracy Theory, resurrection had reference only to the raising up of the dead body of the tomb to new life. It was the eschatological resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, at judgement day, in which the Jews of the first century believed. There was never a Jewish teaching that their would be a resurrection apart from the general resurrection and in advance of it. They wouldn’t use the concept of resurrection from the dead to express their feelings of divine forgiveness or that Jesus is vindicated or something of that sort because resurrection meant the literal, physical, resurrection for the bones to immortality and glory that would take place on judgement day.

Part IV of this post will examine the Literal View Theory

Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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