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Christian apologists confidently maintain belief in Jesus’ supernatural resurrection is a rational belief (more>>). In support of that proposition, one of the lines of evidence relied on is the historically documented evidence that after Jesus was crucified and buried, he was seen alive by multiple witnesses in a physically resurrected body.

Some skeptics attempt to explain away the documented reports of witnesses seeing the resurrected Jesus by proposing the witnesses may have only seen Jesus in the form of a spirit rather than in a physically resurrected body.  However, as discussed in this article, Christian apologists maintain the theory that the eyewitnesses only saw Jesus in a spirit form is not an adequate explanation and is certainly not a rationally compelling proposition.

According to the historical record, after Jesus’ death and burial, he appeared alive on twelve (12) separate occasions to more than 500 people, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul). On all twelve occasions Jesus was seen and probably heard. Jesus offered himself to be touched on at least three occasions and he was definitely touched twice. Jesus showed the scars from his crucifixion on two occasions and ate food with the disciples on 3 – 4 occasions. On four occasions the witnesses responded to their encounter with the risen Jesus by worshipping him. (Go to index of eyewitness accounts) [See, Norman Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, pg. 141 (1984); Norman Giesler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 655 (1999); John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 81 (1997); Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, pg. 253 (2002); Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with Gary Habermas, Ph.D., D.D.”, pg. 72 (1998)]

Reasons Christian Apologists Maintain the Theory that the Witnesses saw Jesus in a the Form of a Spirit Instead of a Physically Resurrected Body is Inadequate

In an attempt to explain away the multiple historically documented eyewitness reports of Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances, some skeptics propose Jesus may have appeared in the form of a spirit.  Some suggest Jesus could have been seen in the same way they believe a spirit is conjured-up in a séance. Others propose that after Jesus was crucified God supernaturally destroyed his body and the appearances to witnesses were theophany-like appearances. Some people theorize God transformed Jesus’ physical body into a spiritual form but, from time to time, allowed Jesus to take on a physical form to convince those he appeared to he was really alive.  Proponents of the proposition that Jesus’ appearances were spiritual in nature, often rely on Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 15:44 to the resurrection body as a “spiritual body.”

Christian apologists respond by raising the following points in rebuttal:

Rebuttal Point No. 1: As Described in the Bible, a Spiritual Body is Not Devoid of All Physical Matter Even though it is Immortal

As explained by Christian apologist Norman Geisler, the Bible describes spiritual bodies as immortal but not immaterial. A spiritual body is dominated by the spirit but it is not devoid of all matter. The Greek word used by Paul for spiritual (pneumatikos) means a body directed by the spirit, as opposed to one controlled by the flesh. So, a spiritual body is immortal and imperishable but it is not immaterial. According to Geisler, Paul’s reference to a “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body denotes a supernatural body, not a non-physical one. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul speaks of the “supernatural (pneumatikos) rock” from which the Israelites got “spiritual drink.” However, Exodus 17:5-6 and Numbers 20:8-9 make it clear the rock was a physical rock from which the Israelites got physical water, but by supernatural means. Further, when Paul spoke about the spiritual man in 1 Corinthians 2:11-15, he was not referring to an invisible, immaterial man without a physical body but a man with a fleshly body whose life was lived by the supernatural power of God. Geisler further asserts Paul’s use of the word “spiritual” (pneumatikos) in 1 Corinthians. 15:44  clearly does not refer to purely immaterial things (see, 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-55). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 658 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 2: Spirits Can’t be Touched and Don’t Eat but Jesus was Touched and Did Eat

Luke 24:33-39 records Jesus’ response to the question of whether he was a spirit. In this account, two of Jesus’ followers had encountered the risen Jesus as they were traveling on the road to Emmaus.  After seeing the resurrected Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to tell the remaining 11 original disciples Jesus had risen from the dead. While they were relating their experience, Jesus appeared in the midst of the room. The initial response of those in the room was fear because they thought they must be seeing a spirit. Jesus responded as follows:

Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. And while they still could not believe it for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat’ And they gave him a piece of broiled fish; and he took it and ate it in their sight.

By inviting the disciples to touch his “flesh and bones” and by eating in front of them, Jesus clearly demonstrated he was not appearing in the form of a spirit. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 647 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 3: Theorizing that Jesus’ Appearances were Spiritual in Nature Doesn’t Obviate the Necessity of a Supernatural Act

Many who propose Jesus’ appearances were merely spiritual seem to do so because they reject the supernatural nature of the resurrection. However, any proposal that Jesus appeared in a spiritual form would also require the involvement of supernatural phenomena. Consequently, those who make such proposals must recognize they are merely substituting one supernatural act for one or more other supernatural acts. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 646 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 4: Conjuring-Up Spirits Was Forbidden by Jewish Holy Scripture and Not Something Jesus’ Jewish Followers Would Have Engaged In

Deuteronomy 18:9-12 strictly forbade the Jews from engaging in acts involving conjuring up spirits:

“There shall not be found among you anyone who … practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord….”

Engaging in conduct that involved calling up the dead, as in a séance, would have made Jesus and/or his followers participants in a practice specifically condemned by their Holy Scripture. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pgs. 113-114 (1997)] Additionally, there is no explanation as to why the disciples would have stopped conjuring up Jesus’ spirit if they were able to do so multiple times during the 40 day period following Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. However, other than the one appearance of Jesus by Paul on the road to Damascus, there are no recorded physical appearances of Jesus to any of his followers after the first forty (40) days following is crucifixion and burial.

Rebuttal Point No. 5: The Explanation that Jesus Appeared as a Spirit Presumes the Disciples Could not Distinguish Between a Spirit and a Physical Body

The explanation that Jesus appeared in a spiritual form presupposes all the people who saw Jesus, including his disciples, could not distinguish between the manifestation of a spirit and a literal, resurrected body that could be touched and could eat. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pgs. 113-114 (1997)] Additionally, the proposition that Jesus appeared as a spirit ignores the fact the disciples specifically affirmed they believed Jesus was physically raised from the dead. For example, in Peter’s sermon recorded in Acts 2:31-32, Peter stood up with the other disciples and began speaking to men who were in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’ death and burial and boldly proclaimed that all of them were witnesses of the fact Jesus’ flesh did not suffer decay:

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words…. 29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption [see, Ps. 16:10]. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

 [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 647 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 6: The Explanation that Jesus Appeared as a Spirit Makes Jesus a Deceiver because Jesus Specifically Referred to His Physical Body in Reference to His Resurrection

Theories which propose Jesus appeared as a spirit necessarily make Jesus a deceiver both before and after the resurrection. Before the resurrection when the Jews at the temple demanded Jesus give them a sign to establish his authority, Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:18-19). John 2:21 specifically states Jesus was referring to “the temple of His body”, not his spirit. If Jesus was only going to reappear as a spirit, then his statement that his body would be raised in three days was a deception. Further, at the time of the resurrection, Jesus left his grave clothes behind (see, Luke 24:12; John 20:3-7) which was evidence he had been physically raised from the dead. However, if his body was not physically raised from the dead, then leaving such evidence behind was deceptive. Finally, after the resurrection, Jesus presented the scars in his hands and side as evidence he had risen in the same body that had been crucified (see, John 20:27). In Luke 24:36-39, Jesus asked the disciples why they had doubts and he told them to touch him and see him because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as he had. If Jesus had only been raised from the dead in a spirit form, then his presentation of his supposed physical wounds was intentionally fraudulent. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 647 (1999)]

If Jesus appeared in a spirit form, Jesus was lying and committing a fraud because Jesus did not claim to be appearing as a spirit; Jesus claimed to be appearing in a physical body (see, Luke 24:33-39). Lying and committing fraud would have required Jesus to violate his own teachings (e.g., Matt. 5:33-37; Matt. 5:16-18) also making him a hypocrite. However, as reflected in the following passages, Jesus clearly despised hypocrites:

  • Jesus condemned people who judged others for “a speck of sawdust” in their eye when the person paid no attention to the “plank” in their own eye. He said, “you hypocrite take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” See Matt. 7:1-5, Luke 6:41.
  • In Matthew 23:1-33, Jesus criticized the teachers of the law and Pharisees for being hypocrites condemning them for many things including: 1) Tithing 1/10th out of obedience to the law while neglecting “the more important matter of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness”; 2) For being hypocrites by keeping themselves looking clean on the outside while being “full of greed and self-indulgence” on the inside.

Engaging in deception is also inconsistent with Jesus’ reputation for being honest and truthful, which even his enemies recognized. For example, in Matthew 22:16-21, disciples of the Pharisees stated: “We know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”

There simply is nothing about what Jesus taught or the way he lived his life that would lead a reasonable person to believe Jesus would have lied about appearing in a physically resurrected body or fraudulently lead others to believe he was appearing in a real physical body.

Rebuttal Point No. 7: The Explanation that Jesus Appeared as a Spirit Does Not Explain Away the Empty Tomb

If Jesus was not physically raised from the dead and only appeared as a spirit, his dead physical body would have still been in the grave, wrapped in grave clothes and could have easily been produced by the Romans or Jewish leaders to squelch the rise of Christianity, which they viewed as a tremendous threat to their authority. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 113 (1997)] There wouldn’t have even been a reason for the body to be taken out of the tomb. But, except for the grave clothes, the tomb was found empty (see, John 20:1-9). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 647 (1999)] Since the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty, those who propose Jesus only appeared in the form of a spirit must offer a reasonable explanation for the empty tomb which had not been done. [Go here to examine the problems skeptics face in attempting to explain away the empty tomb.]

Rebuttal point No. 8: The Words used in the Bible to Describe Jesus’ Appearances Describe the Appearance of a Physical Body

Some point to passages in the New Testament which state that after the resurrection Jesus “appeared” or “let himself be seen” (Luke 24:34, Acts 9:17, 13:31, 26:16, 1 Cor. 15:5-8) and infer from those passages that Jesus was invisible but had the ability to make himself “appear” or be seen.  In response, Christian apologist Norman Geisler notes the writers of these passages used the Greek word “harao” which means “to see” whereas the usual word used to convey the appearance of a “vision” was “orama.” The apostle John used the word horao to describe seeing Jesus’ body before the resurrection (John 6:36, 14:9, 19:35) and after the resurrection (John 20:18, 25, 29). As maintained by Geisler, the phrase “he let himself be seen” means Jesus took the initiative to disclose himself and does not require one to assume Jesus’ body had been invisible. Geisler also points to 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7 in which the apostle John declared that even after the resurrection, Jesus had come in a physical body. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 659 (1999)] Geisler acknowledges not everything involved in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is that clear. Some maintain Jesus came and went in a usual bodily way. Others maintain Jesus was supernaturally transported from one place to another. [Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 659 (1999)] In either case, when Jesus appeared, he did so in a resurrected physical body.

Conclusion

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the rebuttal points set forth above weigh decidedly against the alternative explanation that the witnesses saw Jesus in a spiritual form when they saw him after he had been crucified.  The other alternative explanations skeptics have offered to attempt to explain away the historically documented eyewitness testimony are similarly inadequate (more>>). Consequently, Christian apologists maintain it is reasonable to look beyond such alternative explanations for an explanation that adequately explains all of the historical evidence, including the explanation that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead.

In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede if God does not exist, then Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. Nevertheless, Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and the following seven independent lines of evidence reasonably establish God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead:

  1. The resurrection best explains the historical evidence of Jesus being seen alive in a resurrected body on at least twelve (12) separate occasions by more than 500 witnesses, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul) (here>>)
  2. The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
  3. The resurrection best explains why Jesus’ disciples were transformed from fearful fleers to faithful followers who endured great persecution and became martyrs for their faith (here>>)
  4. The resurrection best explains why even Jewish leaders and skeptics converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified, even though Christianity was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection
  5. The resurrection best explains why there is no evidence any site was ever venerated as Jesus’ burial site even though it was common practice to venerate the burial sites of religious and political leaders
  6. The resurrection best explains why the early Church centered its teachings and practices around a supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection instead of something less controversial like Jesus’ moral teachings
  7. The resurrection best explains the sudden rise and expansion of Christianity so soon after Jesus death even though he had been crucified by the Romans as a political traitor and declared a religious heretic by the Jewish religious leaders

In fact, following a two day debate over the evidence of the resurrection between Dr. Gary Habermas and well-known skeptic, Dr. Anthony Flew, a panel of five philosophers from American universities (including the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 to 1 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with 1 judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges concluded the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” [Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)]. Another of the judges stated:

Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Dr. Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.

[Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)] Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and that he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection but it is intellectually dishonest to write off the resurrection as mere foolishness.

For information on how to know God personally, go here.

© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published: June 1, 2012 / Last Updated:  Feb. 20, 2012

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QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

John F. Ankerberg and John Weldon, Ready With an Answer(Harvest House Publishers, 1997)

Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists: Discover Why Believing In God Makes so Much Sense(River Oak Publishing, 2002)

William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb(Servant, 1988)

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics(Crossway; 3rd Edition, 2008)

Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS(Baker Books, 1999)

Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection: Updated Edition(Wipf & Stock Publishers; Updated Edition, 2004)

Gary R. Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pgs. 1621-1622 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics(IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)

Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?(Zondervan,1958)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Zondervan, 2004)

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Slideshow Photo: “Feather” by Jouni Paavilainen (ChristianPhotos.Net – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications)

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Tags: Bible, Christian, Christianity, form of a spirit, Gary Habermas, God, Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, Norm Geisler, physical body, raised from the dead, resurrected, Resurrection, spirit form, spiritual body

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