“Marley was dead to begin with . . . This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. “
I love that line. It’s from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s an important concept because if Marley wasn’t dead then there would be nothing remarkable about Dickens’ ghost story. During Easter season, I found myself thinking about old Scrooge sitting there shaking uncontrollably from his first encounter with the possibility of the dead coming to visit. Unable to sleep because he can’t get the thought of what might have been a ghost that he saw in the door knocker. Of course in the comfort of his reasonable mind and soft house coat he realizes that what is nagging at his mind is almost surely nothing to lose sleep over. Just a bit of undigested beef right? More gravy than grave. But then again. What if it wasn’t? What if . . .
I found myself in the same sort of state as Scrooge once about 10 years ago. I had just finished reading Paul Maier’s novel A Skeleton in God’s Closet. Here’s a short plot outline. A tomb is found in the Middle East. Convincing evidence links it with Joseph of Aramathea who provided a tomb for Jesus. As the story unfolds, apparently a letter is found near the tomb. The letter is signed by Joseph of Aramathea and claims that the body in the tomb is Jesus’. Carbon dating confirms the date of the ink etc, etc. You get the idea.
“It’s just a novel. It’s just a novel.” That’s what I kept telling myself as I huddled in my chair. It’s highly improbable. Almost no chance that Joseph of Aramathea stole the body of Jesus. I mean I had just graduated from Southern Evangelical Seminary. I knew there was good evidence for the resurrection. There wasn’t just an empty tomb. There were the appearances to the disciples. There was the appearance to Paul and James the two most improbable converts of all. James was Jesus’ brother and Paul because he hated Christianity. There was also the persecutions. How many times had I heard it? People would die for something false but no one would die for something they knew wasn’t true. Skepticism and Martyrdom don’t mix. The tomb was empty. The disciples were convinced. Happy Easter.
But there was that nagging “What if?” Maier is a professor of ancient history and he constructed a plausible explanation. After Jesus was buried, Joseph of Aramathea was concerned that someone would violate the tomb in order to desecrate it. So in the early morning hours of the Sabbath, Joseph moved the body to another tomb. According to the Gospel account, the Roman soldiers were not dispatched to the tomb until after the Jewish leaders petitioned Pilate:
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27: 62-66).
Considering that there has to be time to get an audience with Pilate, detach a unit (however many), and for them to get to the tomb. Its possible that Maier’s story works. In the story the letter was a very elaborate fake fabricated by a mad archaeologist to get revenge on the religion that let him down. But those two little words–What if?–had me huddled Scrooge-like in my chair for one long sleepless night and part of the next day. What if the appearances were just that? Delusions brought on by sleeplessness and grief. More remorse than resurrection. What if Paul’s vision was brought on by an epileptic fit as one BBC talking head . . . uh commentator . . . suggested.
Before I tell you how I managed to banish the ghost of Paul Maier’s imagination, let me ask a question:
Suppose–just suppose–they did find the body of Jesus in a tomb and there was pretty conclusive proof, where would you be Sunday morning?
It is a worthwhile question to ask. Now, many have attempted to take the teeth out of this question by claiming that the resurrection is not a necessary condition for true Christian piety. We don’t need a body to have an Easter. Therefore if they found the bones of Jesus it should not significantly affect our faith. If any credible archeologist found the bones of Jesus tomorrow, the Jesus Seminar and a shockingly large number of academics would not loose much sleep.
However, when I talk to non-Christians especially Atheists, the body of Jesus is a big deal if Christianity is to have any credibility. One thing my atheist friends and I agree about, is that if Christianity is credible at all, it must be vulnerable to what scientists call falsification. If no evidence would ever falsify (make your claim false) then its a bad claim to start with. Let me give you an example. Sir Karl Popper once remarked that what troubled him about Freudianism was that no matter what evidence people brought up to refute it, Freudians had a ready answer. If an example was given to show someone not acting in accordance to Freudian reasoning as a counter example (i.e. “Not everyone does x, Here’s an example”) then that person must be repressing–another Freudian concept. Popper explains why this is a problem for Pyschoanalytic theories:
I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact-that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed-which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.
Unlike perhaps popularist Freudianism, Christianity is falsifiable. The Apostle Paul gave us the criteria for falsifying Christianity:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-17)
Now someone might make the claim that Paul isn’t talking about a bodily resurrection. This is highly unlikely but too expansive a subject for one blog post. However, notice that if he isn’t talking about a bodily resurrection, then there is no physical evidence that could disprove Christianity. We are no better than radical Freudians or Marxists, or Astrologers for that matter since any counter-evidence could be explained within our theory. But if Paul is talking about a bodily resurrection then if we found the bones of Jesus tomorrow, Paul is claiming there would be no good reason to be in church on Sunday. (In fact, I have a standing offer with my friend who is an atheist, if they find the bones of Jesus, I will join him for at the buffet for Sunday brunch.)
The marvel of Easter is that for our story to be credible and miraculous, it must be vulnerable to the facts. My faith says they will never find those bones. Even though there have been some linguistic and statistical gymnastics by some fringe archeologists to claim they have found those bones, not even my atheist friend thinks there’s evidence to disprove the empty tomb yet.
As for Maier’s grave robbing theory. It took me a sleepless night and part of the next morning before I saw it. It is very very unlikely that a dispatch of Roman soldiers, sent specifically to guard the tomb, wouldn’t make sure the body was still there after having been unguarded for an entire night. Once I surmised that no guard would stake his reputation (and possibly his life) on tomb that might already have been robbed, I was able to get a well needed rest. My ghosts left me in peace.