Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Disappearing act

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him...30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight (Lk 24:13-16,30-31).

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 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.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them (Lk 24:36-43)

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn 20:26-27).

Christian readers puzzle over descriptions of the Risen Lord. Three preliminary points:

i) Any explanation will be speculative. Any explanation will go beyond the immediate account, to fill in gaps. 

ii) I prefer explanations that have some Biblical parallel or precedent.

iii) Both Luke and John go out of their way to accentuate the indisputable physicality of the Resurrection. Hence, I'm leery of any explanations that make that equivocal. For instance, if you say Jesus was able to materialize and dematerialize at will, then that casts doubt on the physicality of the Resurrection. After all, if he could materialize and dematerialize, then what is his natural state? Is he normally incorporeal except when he assumes corporal form to appear to people and interact with people? That kind of explanation sabotages the emphasis in Luke and John. 

Let's take a comparison:

6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him (Acts 12:6-10).

A couple of features may be parallel to the Resurrection appearances:

i) Chains and locked gates miraculously unlock.

ii) God apparently makes the guard hallucinate. They see things that aren't there and they fail to see things that are there. (Although it's possible that God made them all fall asleep).

(ii) is reminiscent of an episode in Kings, where God makes the Syrian army hallucinate:

14 So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city. 15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18 And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. 19 And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. 20 As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria (2 Kgs 6:14-20).

Returning to the Resurrection appearances with that background material as a possible frame of reference:

i) In what sense did Jesus vanish from their sight (Lk 24:31)? According to Lk 24:16, God caused them to hallucinate by failing to recognize Jesus. They mistook him for a stranger.

In a sense, that's a mass hallucination, but not in the way that "skeptics" suppose:

a) This was a miraculous hallucination. So, far from being a naturalistic alternative, it's a supernatural explanation.

b) They didn't imagine they saw Jesus when they saw no one or saw a stranger. To the contrary, they imagined seeing a stranger when, in fact, they were looking at Jesus.

And when they came to recognize Jesus (Lk 20:31), that was the opposite of hallucination. That was God breaking the spell. They were hallucinating when they misperceived him as somebody other than Jesus. They finally saw him for who he was when God stopped causing them to hallucinate.

This may also explain the sense in which he vanished from view. Given that the account already has an element of psychological manipulation, this may well mean, not that Jesus physically disappeared–much less dematerialized–but that he became invisible to them because he caused them to hallucinate that he was no longer there.

It's like science fiction stories about telepathic aliens who can make humans see things that aren't there or fail to see things that are there. 

ii) Here's another possibility: At the Ascension, Jesus disappears from view when he disappears into the Shekinah (Acts 1:9). Likewise, Moses entered the Shekinah (Exod 24:18) and, at the Transfiguration, the three disciples entered the Shekinah (Lk 9:34). 

Entering the Shekinah renders a person invisible to outside observers. In Biblical narratives, the Shekinah is visible, but presumably that's a divine convention. If the Shekinah were invisible, and someone entered it, it would appear as though he walked into an invisible room and shut the invisible door behind him. Like those science fiction stories about portals to a parallel universe or time portals to the past and future. Or characters stepping through mirrors in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus.  

iii) In what sense did Jesus enter the Upper Room? Perhaps he miraculously caused the doors to unlock and swing open. (Although it's also possible that he miraculously made a door or wall temporarily pervious, by changing its molecular structure.)

These explanations have three advantages:

i) They preserve the unequivocal physicality of the Resurrection.

ii) They are miraculous rather than rationalistic. 

iii) They have Biblical parallels or Biblical precedent.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if another possibility for the Luke 24 passage could be that Jesus simply made the disciples not recognize him again as before when they were walking on the road toward Emmaus? Like, say, if they were all sitting at a table in a busy place (this assumes they were in a busy place which maybe isn't at all a historically warranted assumption), then Jesus stood up from the table, walked away into the crowd, and became just another face in the crowd again to the disciples?