Was Jesus A Ghost?
John W. Cowart.
After He rose from the dead, Jesus Christ did several things which have embarrassed His followers ever since.
Historically Christians have maintained that the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost but that the same physical body which was crucified, dead and buried actually returned to life. Christians eagerly point to that passage of Scripture where Jesus reassures his disciples that he is not a spirit by showing them his wounded hands and side (Luke 24:36-40). Those believing is a physical resurrection also appeal to the fact that he ate food to show that he was indeed physical and not a spiritual apparition. But for those who maintain a physical resurrection, the embarrassing fact is that the resurrected Jesus did some very ghost-like things.
Even his disciples doubted that it was really Him they saw, and at one point “They were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Can this resurrected Jesus indeed be the same physical person they buried? Or is he something different? Do his actions and abilities change from those of a physical being to those of a ghost?
Every year Easter sermons dwell on the empty tomb, the message of the angels, the triumph over death and the transition of dead winter into springtime. But they usually remain silent about the ghostly actions of the resurrected Jesus. His paranormal abilities do not seem to fit into the commonly accepted idea of a physical return to life of a once-dead individual. His post-resurrection behavior seems to embarrass his followers.
In modern times, there have been a number of documented cases where people have been revived from death-bed experiences. Some have been resuscitated after being declared clinically dead by doctors. In a seminar given in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 16, 1976, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, prominent psychiatrist recognized as a specialist in the area of death and dying and author of several books on the subject, recounted several factors which these revived people seem to have experienced in common. According to Dr. Kubler-Ross these common experiences include:
Some of these people tell of seeing pure light and meeting some religious figure who helps them with the transition between life and death.
But none of the people who have had these revival experiences can do any of the things that are attributed to the resurrected Jesus!
They do not display any ghostly qualities or paranormal abilities. They are essentially the same people with the same normal abilities both before and after their encounter with death. Apparently we can reasonably expect the same behavior patterns from an individual before and after death.
How is Jesus different? What are some of the factors which make him special? Were the abilities and activities of Jesus any different after he had been dead? Did his behavior pattern radically change?
Eating is a distinct physical action. We are told that on at least two occasions after the resurrection Jesus ate in the presence of witnesses. Once he dined on fish and honeycomb (Luke 24:41-43); and once on bread and fish (John 21:12-15). On this second occasion, which took place on a lakeside after the disciples had spent the night fishing without catching anything, he provided not only the immediate meal but also a spectacular catch of 153 large fish. This post-resurrection control over nature in providing this meal is paralleled before his death when he fed the multitudes (John 6:1-14); and when he called Peter, James and John from their work as fishermen to become his disciples (Luke 5: 1-11). In fact when he chose these disciples, the size of the catch ripped the net and the ship was in danger of sinking. The influence of Jesus over nature in both these incidents is identical; it almost reads like two accounts of the same event. But one occurs before his crucifixion, the other after.
His ability and behavior in this particular area both before and after the resurrection appears to be the same.
Doubting Thomas ought to be the patron saint of modern times; we can identify with him because he needed to see concrete evidence before he committed himself to belief. John tells us that Thomas was not present when Jesus first talked with the disciples after His resurrection (John 20:24-29). When told that Jesus was alive again, Thomas flatly declares, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails… I will not believe”. All four Gospels unanimously record that at first none of the disciples believed he had risen, but this unbelief was nothing new because they had a long history of not believing in Jesus even before his death (John 6:64-66). Remember the familiar story of Peter’s denial at the trial? (Luke 21:54-62)?
The unusual thing in the encounter between Jesus and Thomas following the resurrection is that Jesus knew Thomas’ private doubt and statement without having been present at the time Thomas expressed these things. When they did meet, Jesus took the initiative by calling attention to the nail prints in his hands and the spear wound in his side. He knew the content of Thomas’ private conversation! When Thomas realized that Jesus knew his thoughts and saw the very evidence he had asked to see, he responded by falling at Jesus’ feet exclaiming, “My Lord and My God”!
Now, it’s interesting to note that Jesus had displayed this same ability to know what was in men’s minds several times before his crucifixion. He demonstrated this seeming telepathic ability when he called Nathaniel from under the fig tree (John 1:45-51). In Jericho when he called Zacchaeus, the little man who climbed the tree to be able to see him, Jesus showed this kind of perception (Luke 19:1-10). Gospel writer Mark describes the ability of Jesus to know what people were thinking in these words, “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves… (Mark 2:8).
Luke’s Gospel offers another illustration of this paranormal ability (Luke 7:36-50). On that occasion Jesus attended a banquet at the home of Simon, the Pharisee. During the course of the meal, a prostitute entered the hall and threw herself at the foot of Jesus’ couch. She wept profusely and began to wash his feet with her tears, drying them with her own long hair. And, breaking open a flask of her perfume, she anointed him.
Although Simon felt outraged at this public display, he said nothing – but, he thought to himself that if Jesus were really a holy man, he would realize what kind of woman she was and repel her. At that point Jesus addressed a parable on the nature of love and forgiveness to the unspoken thoughts of his host. Then he publicly declared that the prostitute’s sins were forgiven.
From these incidents it is evident that both before and after his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated this paranormal ability to know the thoughts and intents of the heart.
The most ghost-like, and the most embarrassing for Christians, among his special activities after the resurrection is his ability to vanish (Luke 24:31) and to suddenly appear in locked rooms (John 20:19 & 26).
This is not the sort of thing normal, physical people can do.
Because of the unusual nature of these accomplishments, some feel that the resurrection may have been a totally spiritual event, that there was no physical return from death, but that the spirit of Jesus lives on in the hearts of good men everywhere. However, regardless of how strange these abilities seem to us, an examination of the Scripture reveals that even these ghost-like actions were attributed to Jesus even before he died!
For instance, once when he was in Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus delivered a controversial speech. His message infuriated the hearers. The mob shouted him down, then grabbed him and hustled him to the edge of a local cliff where they intended to “cast him down headlong”. Frenzied people surrounded him, people who knew him from childhood, people who intended to murder him – yet, Luke cryptically states, “He, passing through the midst of them, went his way”! (Luke 4:16-31)
A similar thing happened in Jerusalem (John 8:52-59). In his speech there Jesus openly stated that God is his Father. The hostile mob snatched up rocks intending to batter him to death, but again Jesus “passed through the midst of them” thus paralleling his freedom of movement after the resurrection.
There remain two additional factors to examine before drawing any conclusions: the first is Jesus’ ability to accurately foretell a person’s future; and the second is the fact that when he first appeared to his assembled followers they supposed they were seeing a spirit – not a physical person.
Following the resurrection Peter determined to go fishing and took the other disciples out on a boat all night. At dawn Jesus appeared and called to them from the shore and Peter jumped overboard, swimming to meet him.
In the conversation that followed, Jesus revealed how Peter would eventually meet his own death (John 21:1-19). Catholic tradition teaches that Peter’s martyrdom occurred just as foretold.
But, this was not the first time Jesus had accurately predicted a future death. On at least three occasions before his own execution, Jesus predicted it in detail saying, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him unto death and shall deliver him unto the gentiles: and they shall mock him and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). Even knowing these things Jesus went to Jerusalem anyway and it’s common knowledge how true his prediction proved to be.
Since every supernatural aspect of Jesus’ behavior after his resurrection is paralleled by similar behavior before his death, then why did his friends sometimes fail to recognize him?
When he visited them, why did his followers “suppose they had seen a spirit”? (Luke 24:37). Were they correct or mistaken? Had they ever previously thought this?
One of the most dramatic things Jesus ever did happened on the coast of Gennesaret (Mark 6:46-54). While he prayed alone at some unnamed mountain, the disciples rowed a small boat across the Sea of Galilee. As they labored, making little progress against a contrary wind, they saw Jesus coming out to meet them. He walked on the water. When they saw him, Mark records, “They supposed it had been a spirit”. Jesus reassured the screaming men saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid”; then he climbed into the boat with them for the rest of the trip. As for their reaction: “They were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure and wondered”. This is the identical reaction they had upon seeing him risen from the grave. In both these unusual circumstances, when he walked on water before crucifixion and when he visited them afterwards, the disciples supposed they had seen a “phantasma”, a ghost.
Can the person who appeared to the disciples be the same person whom they had seen crucified and had personally buried? Or was this a ghost? A spiritual apparition or a physically resurrected individual? Is the person who rose the same one who was buried?
Is Jesus Christ a ghost – or is he something else?
Every ghostly feature of his post-resurrection activities has a precedent before his death. Jesus exhibits no new characteristics after he returned from the grave. He continues doing exactly the same type of thing he did before he died. He even continues to command that men “Follow me” just as he had done before.
He is essentially the same following his death experience.
It appears that the source of embarrassment for Christians about his post-resurrection behavior may lie in two areas; the first is that no gospel devotes more than two chapters to post-resurrection events; therefore the enormity of these events is compressed in mind-boggling brevity. They confuse and embarrass because they are so condensed that we find them incredible. The second factor contributing to this embarrassment is that a temptation exists to think of Jesus as a local boy who made good as far as death is concerned.
If the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost, if the same physical body which was tortured to death and buried arose still consistently performing the same characteristic actions as before, and if these actions are vastly different from the things others can do, then we are forced to suspect that, although he physically rose from the dead, he was not the same kind of being as the rest of us who will also die. Apparently he is at the very least Someone Special. And, if he is not a ghost, then what is He?
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