Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.
–the Book of Acts
Christian: I think it’s worthwhile to highlight this comment made by Gary and then consider why it is problematic:
However, we have evidence of people today seeing bright lights and claiming that Mary has appeared to them so why couldn’t the same have occurred 2,000 years ago involving Jesus?
Why indeed? In fact, the answer is obvious. The people who have claimed to see Mary are not her friends and family. Nor do these people believe that Mary has literally come back from the dead. On the contrary, there has never been any doubt that these experiences are visionary in nature. The original events (whatever they may be) have not evolved into accounts in which Mary is physically resurrected. So there is no analogy here with the resurrection of Jesus. The interesting thing, however, is that atheists should resort to making these (spurious) comparisons. It shows that they have no answer. In spite of that they continue to offer the same discredited arguments.
Gary: When the original claimants claimed that Jesus had appeared to them, did they claim they had seen a “resurrected” Jesus or simply a “risen from the dead” Jesus? Answer: We do not know for certain. We don’t know for certain because we do not have their undisputed testimony. You ASSUME that the original claimants instantly believed that they had seen a “resurrected” Jesus, but for all we know they believed that they had seen a “risen” Jesus; the belief that his body was a resurrected body developed sometime later. And again I ask: Must someone see a body to believe that a dead person has appeared to them? You cannot prove this is the case. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the original claimants all saw a bright light and believed it to be Jesus. And the fact is that we know early Christians could believe that someone had seen a bright light and believed it was the risen/resurrected Jesus as this is exactly what the author of Acts tells us happened to Paul!
Christian: What is the difference between a “resurrected” Jesus and a “risen from the dead” Jesus?
Gary: Jewish folklore involves other persons returning from the dead (alleged miracles involving the prophets Elijah and Elisha). It is therefore possible that the early eyewitnesses had experiences which made them believe that Jesus had come back from the dead, in similar fashion to the alleged “raisings” in the OT.
The question remains: Did first century Jews need to see a body to believe that a person raised from the dead had appeared to them? According to the author of the Book of Acts: No. One could see a bright light and believe that a dead person had appeared to them.
Isn’t it possible that the concept of an individual resurrection developed sometime after the original appearances? We really cannot know for sure. Isn’t it possible that early Christians were trying to figure out why a raised from the dead Jesus would appear briefly to people but never permanently return and stay. An individual resurrection was their explanation for why Jesus didn’t return permanently. It was a new twist to an established Jewish concept of a general resurrection.
Christian: I don’t know why you are bringing Elijah and Elisha into the discussion. Those cases involved resuscitations. The widow whose son was raised by Elijah would not have been convinced that her son had been raised from the dead if she had seen a bright light. The whole point of the story is that her son appeared to be dead and then he was revived. If you think that happened to Jesus then you must be advocating the swoon theory. In that case people most definitely would have needed to see a resurrected body.
If you want to stick with the idea that the followers of Jesus saw nothing more than a bright light then you have to deal with the problem of why this made them believe that Jesus was resurrected. You have already made the comparison between Jesus and Mary. But the example of Marian visions contradicts your suggestion. The people who (think they) have seen Mary are fully aware that this is a visionary experience. They don’t believe that it proves she has been resurrected.
Gary: Isn’t the following scenario possible: Peter had a vivid dream or trance. In his dream or trance, Jesus appears to him, forgives him for betraying him, and tells Peter that he has come back from the dead (a resuscitation) to sit on David’s throne as the Messiah and to establish the New Kingdom. Peter is beside himself! He is a changed man! After all, Peter believes that in a very short time he will be ruling as a prince in the New Israel. Peter shares the good news with the other disciples. The group is electrified with excitement. Their hopes and dreams are not dashed after all! Soon other disciples are experiencing appearances of Jesus in vivid dreams. Other disciples experience cases of mistaken identity; seeing a man in the distance or in a crowd who looks like Jesus. The hysteria intensifies. Soon, individual disciples and groups of disciples are experiencing illusions (bright lights, shadows, and cloud formations) which they interpret as appearances of the back-from-the-dead Jesus (a resuscitated Jesus, similar to the alleged resuscitations in the OT).
But why does Jesus pop in and pop out of sight instead of staying and establishing the New Kingdom right now??
Cognitive dissonance sets in (an attempt to harmonize reality with one’s hopes and dreams). Someone comes up with the idea that maybe God took Jesus to heaven.
Jesus will return from heaven to establish the New Kingdom!
Someone else then suggests that maybe Jesus wasn’t just raised from the dead (resuscitated) and taken to heaven like Elijah, but maybe God resurrected him…as the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead!
That would mean that the general resurrection has begun! At any moment, the remaining righteous dead will be raised! Jesus will soon return from heaven to establish the New Kingdom and sit on David’s throne! It’s happening, brethren!!! Let’s sell all we have, move to Jerusalem, and fast and pray: the Kingdom is at hand!
Dear Christians: You may believe this scenario is improbable, but you can’t say it is impossible. And in my world view, this improbable but possible scenario is much, much more probable than a literal resurrection of a dead corpse.
Christian: You can dream up as many scenarios as you like. What you can’t do is to demonstrate that anything like it has ever led to the conviction among a group of people that their deceased friend has risen from the dead. The most you could say about such a scenario is that it is so improbable that it could not be expected to occur more than once in history. It can’t be more probable than that, otherwise there would be several such cases. On the other hand it could be far less probable than that. It may be that you could rerun the tape of history countless times and nothing like it would ever happen again.
But your problems don’t stop there. If the (false) belief in Jesus’ resurrection was just a freak occurrence then there can be no expectation about what happens next. From your atheist perspective there is no reason to think that this delusion will lead to the most successful religious movement in history. And yet that is what happened. We know that religious movements can be successful without God’s intervention but it is still highly improbable that any particular religious movement will be as successful as Christianity has been. So from your atheist perspective two highly improbable things just happened to have combined in the same case. From a Christian perspective things are different. If God raised Jesus from the dead then the success of Christianity is not surprising.
Gary: No. I don’t have to prove that anything like it has ever led to the conviction among a group of people that their deceased friend has risen from the dead. Even if this assertion is true—that no one else in the history of humankind has ever made the same claim as was made by the followers of Jesus—this very odd, very rare but non-supernatural claim is much more probable in my worldview than your very odd, very rare, never heard of before or since supernatural claim of a bodily resurrection. And, even if we allow for the reality of the supernatural, even you must admit that Christianity only claims that one bodily resurrection has ever occurred. Therefore, your claim is still highly improbable! So if we look at both our claims rationally, isn’t it much more probable, even allowing for the supernatural, that a rare, but natural explanation is more probable for the early Christian resurrection belief than your one-off supernatural claim??
From your atheist perspective there is no reason to think that this delusion will lead to the most successful religious movement in history. …We know that religious movements can be successful without God’s intervention but it is still highly improbable that any particular religious movement will be as successful as Christianity has been.
Experts believe that Islam will soon replace Christianity as the world’s most populous religion and could hold that top spot for the next several millennia, longer than Christianity did. Who knows! I’m sure you believe that Mohammad was delusional, yet his religion is on track to become the dominant world religion! So your reasoning is faulty. The number of adherents of a particular superstition in no way confirms the validity of that superstition.