Ask any conservative Christian, “What caused the Resurrection belief?” and you will get this response: Multiple people, sometimes in large groups, saw the resurrected Jesus. But is there any evidence to support this claim other than the Appearance Stories found in three of the four Gospels—books which even Roman Catholic scholars, who very much believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, doubt were written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses?
If there is any other evidence, I would like to see it!
If one takes a look at the Early Creed quoted by Paul in First Corinthians 15 nowhere in that passage does it state that anyone believed in the Resurrection because Jesus appeared to him or her. This creed simply lists people to whom the resurrected Jesus allegedly appeared. For all we know, the perceived appearances were manifestations of a pre-existent belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
The fact is, we have no idea why the earliest Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus!
I have suggested before on this blog the possibility that the Empty Tomb triggered the Resurrection belief. In their despair at the loss of their leader and the loss of all their hopes and dreams, the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb gave the disciples of Jesus a glimmer of hope. As long as there was a dead body, no one could claim that Jesus was risen from the dead; that he really was the messiah; that the New Kingdom of God, the New Israel, would still be created; or that the Twelve would reign as princes on thrones with Jesus. But with a missing body, there was still hope that their fantastical dreams could still come true!
This glimmer of hope lead to speculation as to the cause of the Empty Tomb. At first the obvious was considered: Someone took the body (this is even suggested in the Gospel accounts)! But then someone suggested that maybe God had raised Jesus from the dead, as had (allegedly) happened on at least two occasions in the Old Testament. “Think about it! A risen Jesus could still defeat the Romans and re-establish the throne of David!”
But then these devout Jews began to wonder, “What about the Resurrection of the Righteous Dead? Isn’t that supposed to happen with the establishment of the New Kingdom of God? What if… What if the general resurrection of the dead has begun, with Jesus as the first fruits!”
Impossible, you say?
Here is an example of a modern religious sect grappling with the massive disappointment and disillusionment of a failed prophecy. Question: If one has invested one’s entire being and livelihood into a belief, which is easier: Admit that you were wrong or reinterpret the “failed prophecy” into a fulfilled prophecy?
The cult group Leon Festinger studied consisted of eleven hardcore members and numerous transitory participants. It was led by a woman who believed she was receiving mental messages from spacemen on another planet. This woman, Dorothy Martin (aka “Marian Keech”), received a message from the imaginary spacemen in August of 1954 that said a great cataclysm would ensue around the world on December 21st of the same year. The cult group publicly declared this belief, which attracted a lot of attention from the media and the public. Additional messages from the spacemen led the cult to believe that at midnight on the eve before the cataclysm they would be removed from the planet and spared from the destruction. In order for this to happen, they were instructed to wait inside certain identified parked cars and the spacemen would then transfer them from the parked cars to a flying saucer where they would be whisked away. Imposter cult members – two social psychologists and sometimes up to five hired participant-observers – infiltrated the group and were able to observe firsthand over a period of weeks the buildup to these expectations and the reaction of the hardcore believers to the shock of disconfirmation on December 21st when none of the events occurred as they expected.
When none of the events occurred as they expected, two of the hardcore cult members rejected their beliefs and left the group. But the other nine did not. Instead, they went through a period of intense group rationalization over a period of hours (Festinger et al. 1956: 158-170). Many explanations were floated as the group wrestled with their catastrophic disappointment. For example, they reasoned that the spacemen must have given them the wrong date. Another explanation was that the events had been postponed, possibly for years, so that more people could prepare to “meet their maker”. Yet another was more complex: The message from the spacemen, which had them waiting inside parked cars from which they would be moved to the flying saucer, must be symbolic because parked cars do not move and hence could not take anyone anywhere; therefore, the parked cars must symbolically refer to their physical bodies, and the flying saucer must symbolically refer to the importance of their own inner “strength, knowing, and light” for their rescue. The cult group even considered leaving the disconfirmation unexplained while insisting that the plan had never gone awry and accepting that they did not have to understand everything for it all to still be essentially true.
During this rationalization period, one of the participant-observers feigned frustration and walked outside. One of the hardcore members, a medical doctor, followed and offered verbal support. Here are the words of a normal human being who has staked everything on a belief, only to have that belief cruelly disconfirmed by reality:
I’ve had to go a long way. I’ve given up just about everything. I’ve cut every tie. I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there isn’t any other truth.…I won’t doubt even if we have to make an announcement to the press tomorrow and admit we were wrong. You’re having your period of doubt now, but hang on boy, hang on. This is a tough time but we know that the boys upstairs are taking care of us….These are tough times and the way is not easy. We all have to take a beating. I’ve taken a terrific one, but I have no doubt. (Festinger et al. 1956: 168)
In the end, the group settled on an explanation provided by the group’s leader, which was based on a timely message she received from the spacemen. She said that the steadfast belief and waiting by their group had brought so much “light” into the world that God called off the pickup and the cataclysm (Festinger et al. 1956: 169). This explanation was jubilantly received by the group. According to Leon Festinger, “The group was able to accept and believe this explanation because they could support one another and convince each other that this was, in fact, a valid explanation” (1989: 255-256).
End of post.