Betting on Jesus:  The Vanishing of the Christ

David K. Clark


You have almost certainly contemplated your own version, however informally, of Pascal’s classical wager. Nearly everyone has. The wager is a no-bra iner, isn’t it? How can you lose by going with God? Betting on God—we are informed—ensures your future throughout eternity if you are right. And if you are wrong, what’s the real difference?

Seventy years?!

Failing to bet on God risks everything, not just for a few years, but forever and ever! Take God and run; it seems like a win-win.

That’s the classical “wisdom,” but it is rather easy to see that such wisdom misses the crucial point. It is not merely that the recommendation is unsettlingly mercenary. It is worse, for if this life, this world, is indeed “everything there is,” then our time here is far too precious to be frittered away chasing down trumped-up versions of nonexistent alternatives. Indeed, to bet on God may well be to have insulted and spurned the best that reality has to offer—the beauty of the world, the unique and special qualities of our loved ones, our noblest personal aspirations, our best sense of what reality offers us—by relegating our efforts and attentions toward an otherworldly fantasy. If we dedicate our lives to a fairy tale, we will have thereby wasted our only chance to achieve a full and meaningful life—one of which we can stand proud. And, if we sell out—if our insecurities are converted into fear and trembling before a God we do not even know exists—then we will have surrendered our integrity. This is not how you want to die; it is not how you want to live. Or is it?

Is there some way to cut to the chase—some way to know whether God really will be there for us in the end? When one is attempting to decide what to believe, then integrity demands that one be on the prowl for evidence. And so with everything at stake, we need to know what conclusion the evidence demands from a responsible and honest person.

So, what could stem the tide of doubt? In the clear absence of anything such as full-fledged rational proofs for or against the existence of a loving God, what could illuminate the controversy in such a way that you could see the truth for yourself? Is there anything—any empirical discovery—that might decisively tip the scale in one direction rather than another? There must be something! Your salvation—your personal fulfillment and that of those whom you love—is at stake.

But how exactly could your doubts be resolved by an appeal to evidence? Is such evidence even possible, and if so, is it available?

My answer is an unequivocal “Yes” to both questions.

 

The Thesis

The thesis of this article is: we can know that Jesus was not the resurrected Son of God. More precisely, it is not difficult to establish—utilizing nothing more than the Gospels themselves—that Jesus was not resurrected; the corollary is that we know that Jesus was not the son of God. Betting on Jesus to save us is a clear mistake.

Paul himself framed the challenge crisply enough: “[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Paul is surely correct about that much. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no reason to believe that he was the son of God and thus no reason to suppose that he will return to resurrect the faithful on That Great Day. Indeed, without the resurrection, faith is futile and “in vain.”

While Paul is among the first of his time to parade the importance of the resurrection, he is certainly not the last. The resurrection is also afforded preeminent status by the Gospels, which are designed to engineer the realization that the event of the resurrection is, well, gospel. Nevertheless, these very writings serve instead to reveal the exact opposite. While the controversy is one that has now raged for over two millennia, it is astounding to realize that it is the Gospels themselves that shatter the very cornerstone of faith for which they stand guard.

How is it, then, that we will be brought to see that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are stripped of all credibility? Here the reader must be cautioned.

Options. For those who have sought to oppose the authenticity of the resurrection, options have been appallingly few. Bultmannians (supporters of Rudolf Bultmann’s theories)—seeking to reinvest the Gospels with credibility—relegate the status of the resurrection to that of mere myth building. This is of course intolerable to mainstream Christians—whether they be Catholic, evangelical, or fundamentalist. It undercuts Paul’s message of salvation by stripping Jesus of divinity.

Meanwhile, non-Christians typically grasp at one of two remaining reeds. Either Jesus swooned and was prematurely removed from the cross, only to have been later sighted walking about and perhaps preparing for a quiet life with Mary of Magdelena. Or, it is alleged that the disciples perpetrated a grave-robbing hoax. John Dominic Crossan has decisively marginalized these already desperate attacks. The Romans, able practitioners of their craft, afforded no burial rites to dissident troublemakers. Jesus, if crucified, certainly never made if off the cross alive and was surely routinely burned along with the rotting piles of other corpses that had met the same fate. No burial; hence, no resurrection.

However, it is now time to emphasize that the approach taken in this article is completely independent from and has absolutely nothing to do with the above controversies. Engagement with them will not bring us closer to achieving our aim. And let us not lose sight of it. The question before us is whether there is decisive evidence against the resurrection—and, hence, the divinity—of Jesus.

Upon completion of this task, be assured that a final salvo will yet arrive from those who would seek to restore the Gospel accounts of a literal resurrection as if straight from the annals of history. But by then, it will also be clear that this tactic cannot succeed. And so, we will shortly know exactly why no success will be forthcoming from appeals to history.

Returning to the original question, we will see that the fatal weakness of the Gospel message lies at the very heart of the passion narrative itself. The Gospels themselves provide the means of exposing the deception that lurks within them.

 

Inside the Gospels

In order that we might more fully appreciate this point, let us engage in a thought experiment—one in which our imaginations journey to a much earlier time, when we are part of a conquered people living around the Palestinian territories just east of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of us are Jewish, but not all. We each belong to a larger, diverse culture. Most of us share some common features; we are likely very poor as well as illiterate. Life is difficult; we are often at odds with the established powers within our own religion; we grouse about how they exploit us and are otherwise insensitive to us. We find ways to make do. Some of the women have become prostitutes, the men criminals. Many among us are diseased. There are small joys, but life is typically tedious, often grueling, and devoid of hope. We are without good ideas about how to improve either our society or our individual lives. And then there are the Romans. God, how we hate the Romans. They are, so often, unbelievably cruel; the crucifixion of troublemakers, of dissidents—or of anyone they might care to so target—is a way of life for them. Their soldiers make spor
t of us, their government taxes us, and from this persecution there seems no respite.

Still, we have dreamed, and occasionally dare to dream again, of a “redeemer,” of someone who will rise and vanquish our enemies, quash Roman authority, remedy internal injustices, deliver the Promised Land into our hands once again, and simply, well, transform the world. While we have long ceased to bother to actually exchange expressions of such hope, scattered thoughts remain. But mostly these ideas just seem surreal; such change cannot really happen—at least not naturally. What would it really take? Our own stories, reaching far back into our tradition, seem to provide the only answer. We know it would require divine intervention—an act of God Himself—something like the arrival of the promised Jewish Messiah.

It would take a miracle.

Even though we barely dare to hope, of late we are becoming increasingly aware that something rather extraordinary is apparently occurring—right in our midst. You’ve heard talk of some itinerant, Jesus?, son of ?, brother of? You think that he is actually—if you’ve got it right—moving about the countryside speaking, of all things, about the “Kingdom of God”?! Evidently, he has been doing this now for some time and is attracting crowds. Various people seem to know about him. There is talk of great miracles—of healing, of feeding, of communing openly with God. His wisdom appears refreshingly at odds with that of the Jewish leadership and seems to harbor a renewed authenticity.

You feel the lure and are compelled to learn more and judge for yourself. When you do, you hear him speak; you finally catch a clear view of the man; you watch him interact with others. He is eating, drinking, sharing, and partaking—and exhorting others to do the same. He is earnest and intense, yet he enjoys people; he teaches without pretense; his insightful sincerity immediately exudes trustworthiness. In his presence, religious and social distinctions fall away. And as he speaks of the Kingdom, his eloquence is unparalleled. He is a commanding presence.

And now, perhaps, he even looks you directly in the eye. It is a stunning moment. Others are affected in a similar way. People sometimes clamor—and act foolishly—just to touch him, as if his very clothing embodied healing power. And while his stories of the Kingdom are strange and provocative, they are delivered with a clear sense of authority. Uncertain as to their precise meaning, you do not doubt that they are full of promise about God’s Kingdom and of your place in it. And, if Jesus is right, you do have a place in it—or at least, you could have if you so chose. You are mesmerized. You are hooked. You want in!

You have begun to think of him in messianic terms—but in a very unexpected and enigmatic way. There is a buzz; you struggle with the very ideas that seem too fantastic to fathom with a clear mind. For perhaps this is a different sort of Messiah than the one for which you had once yearned. Some are apparently suggesting that Jesus is not just any messianic son of God but the literal son of God! You’ve heard the disciples speak of him in just this way. You know that he has sometimes invoked God himself as he performs his miracles. The religious authorities are furious and accuse him of blasphemy—of usurping the role of God as he forgives sins. But, they also seem to respect and even fear him. You’ve heard also that he seems to speak directly to God, using a very intimate form of address—Abba—“father.” Who is this man?

There is something else. It is obvious that as Jesus nears Jerusalem, the disciples are becoming increasingly agitated. They are worried. Heedless of the disciples’ warnings, Jesus has spoken openly about what awaits him. He is predicting his betrayal, his death, and his resurrection—on the third day after his death!

What this could mean is barely fathomable. Not only are some arguing about whether resurrection is even possible, others are struggling to grasp this new idea of a Messiah—one that does not fit the wineskins of old. The disciples themselves seem incapable of coping; they instead prefer to hush up discussion or change the subject. They apparently remain unclear about why Jesus would need to die—as do you. Yet Jesus has promised not only his death but his resurrection.

Jesus makes a triumphant arrival in Jerusalem; almost immediately, there is a confrontation in the Temple. Thereafter, he departs. But you do not have long to wait—only a matter of a few hours—before the definitive crisis emerges. Soon, too soon, you will hear Jesus’s own response to his challengers. He will return to judge the world! And with this announcement, you then see the deep anger within the establishment powers; you know that if Jesus can be taken at his word, your very salvation depends upon such a resurrection.

You are alternatively filled with exhilaration, confusion, and dread. Jesus is seized by the Jewish ruling body, beaten, turned over to the Romans, and is ordered to die by crucifixion. It is an ugly, brutal scene; while a few clamor around the base of the cross, all you can do is to watch helplessly from a suitable distance. Finally you turn away, struck dumb with anguish and disbelief. Hordes witness his death. Sick at heart, you slowly trudge away.

Meanwhile, what you do not realize is that someone has arranged to have Jesus buried in his private tomb. A small group of women follow to see where the body is located; they leave, intending to return so as to properly anoint it for burial. And it is then, upon that return, that the truth begins to dawn upon an unsuspecting world. Jesus is not there; he is gone—resurrected—just as he had proclaimed. The disciples must be alerted so that they can meet with Jesus as he planned. The world must be informed. Jesus has risen.

 

Initial Assessment

Is this story believable—even on its own terms? Does the basic account of the resurrection itself rise to any acceptable level of credibility?

To see that the answer is clearly “No,” we must first weed out all troubling and question-begging assumptions. So, we will not begin by assuming that God does not exist or assume that resurrections are impossible. Most of all, we will not assume that miracles are impossible. Indeed, we should grant all these possibilities; none of them is germane to our assessment. In order to conduct our evaluation, we need only to entertain exactly one question: At the time Jesus was to rise up from the dead, exactly where was everyone?

At just that magic moment, the one where the most stunning of all miracles was to have occurred, the one in which the new Kingdom was to be inaugurated—the one that would include you and lead to the vanquishing of your enemies, transforming your world—where were the people? Where were you? Where were the Pharisees, the Romans, and all of those whose futures were thought to be at stake in the outcome? It is obvious that the prospect of such an event would raise the excitement level off the charts. This is a dream come true for ticket scalpers, but instead . . . there was no one. No one at all. Why? The answer is that the very idea of the resurrection of Jesus had not occurred to anyone. No one, absolutely no one, anticipated any such event—not even you. Otherwise, you would have been there—along with everyone else.

Therefore, the claim that Jesus was going to be resurrected was simply not a part of his teaching. If it had been, Resurrection Day would have been well attended. The very writings that were designed to legitimate the idea of a resurrected Jesus are an obvious hoax.

 

The Emergence of ‘the Messiah’

For some, the impact of this realization will be considerable. The blockbuster result is hard-hitting, not just because it may come as a stunning surprise (as it will to many) but also because the conclusion is, really, so painfully obvious. How could anyone, indeed, everyone, miss this? The very notion of the heralded Resurrection Day without the requisite audience is silly!

That the populace was taken in there should be no doubt. However, if the fraud stands out in such clear relief, we need to ask how anyone was ever misled. For those within the throes of deeply entrenched beliefs, the entire charade must be unmasked. Otherwise, the result that has just been won will be squandered as true believers will insist that they have been victimized by some unspecifiable cheap trick. So it is only once we understand how this challenge is to be met that the issue can confidently be laid to rest by all who have the courage to work through it.

So the question requires an answer; and there is an answer! The first step of providing it requires that we clearly grasp the desperation that faced Jesus’s followers upon his death. For from that very instant—unless something dramatically changed—the hour of the parable was over. And it was within just this crisis-charged moment that the solution began to take shape. The resurrection-based construal of the life and death of Jesus lay right there in front of the followers, needing only the ingenuity of Mark’s later (post-Pauline) “passion narrative” to deliver it. Accordingly, it would then become crucial for the early Christian writers that they sell, promote, the idea that Jesus was the literal son of God. Why? How do we know that the Gospel writers were intent upon presenting Jesus as the literal son of God, even if they had to fabricate stories to do so?

The short answer to this question then is that, otherwise, Jesus was simply dead. Dead! Hence, Jesus was neither a messiah nor was he the vehicle of anyone’s future salvation. For some, this was not an option. The significance of Jesus had to be salvaged—there had to be a way. How could the last be first, and the first be last—how could the most downtrodden and apparently forsaken of peoples, God’s own chosen people, become recipients of the kingdom of which Jesus so eloquently spoke—the Kingdom of God—if Jesus was left a mere rotting corpse? His inspiration, the hope that invigorated those who knew him, had to be restored—somehow.

From here, we do not know the details. In truth, we can never know them. But it is not difficult to fathom and then confirm the outlines. Thus we can be assured that the search for a satisfactory answer to this quandary led, soon enough, to an appeal to what the people knew best—their tradition. Our tradition. The script by which Jesus was to emerge as the Messiah was hardly arbitrary and was in fact within their hands—the storied tradition—right down to being buried in a rich man’s tomb.

Think! Hadn’t Hosea told us of God’s love for us, informing us that God will marry us just as he instructed Hosea to marry his whore? And hadn’t Isaiah told us that God’s magnificent suffering servant (a conquered Israel) would need to suffer and die and in so doing bear the iniquities of us all? These same stories confirm that God would raise his servant on the third day—the longest period before a body begins to decompose. The resurrection narrative has already begun to take shape.

It is crucially augmented by the many well-known stories about sacrifice—beginning with Cain, then on to Noah and then Abraham and the other patriarchs. Indeed, we know that the entire culture of the temple had developed around the practice of ritualistic sacrifice. It is precisely these underlying stories that are also laced with tales of atonement—practices wherein one would give of his best in order to shield and protect loved ones (just as Job prayed and sacrificed for his children) who might have neglected their duties of piety. The transgressions of those we care about most may be atoned for through acts of sacrifice.

Perhaps, then, that was the answer? Someone—yes, someone—God himself! was making atonement on our behalf. He was sacrificing his best for the transgressions of those prostitutes whom he loved. Us—Israel; he really does love us! Israel does not then have to die. Rather, it was Jesus who is served up as Israel’s sacrificial servant—the Lamb of God. This of course would mean that if Jesus was also to be our Savior—the Messiah—he would certainly be a son of God. Any king would be; Psalms 2 assures us of that. But Jesus—as God’s special gift to us—would not be just any king, one son of God among others; Jesus would have to be the literal son of God. Only then could he serve as an offering of God’s best—a sacrificial atonement for our shortcomings. But then—as our Messiah—having been stricken with the transgressions of our people, he would also have to be resurrected. He would have to be raised from the dead—on the third day, just as the prophets had proclaimed—and then return to us as our Christ and Savior. Yes, that must be it!

It is not long before some will claim to have sighted him. Jesus was dead but now is risen; Christ is born.

Reenergizing Paul. So now we too can recognize the very script from which the Gospel accounts were lifted. And we do know from Paul’s writings—the earliest we have from the Gospel times (the writing of the canonical Gospels ranged from ten to forty years following Paul’s death)—that people did reason in precisely this way. We know, in particular, that Paul himself came to accept a very similar rationale, one in which God’s own son was sacrificed for our sins.

But outside the cult, this was not an easy case to make. For as those dissenters addressed by Paul would make clear, the Pauline account faced an intractable problem. It simply presupposed, and dogmatically proclaimed, precisely what it needed to demonstrate. How did Paul know that Jesus was the literal son of God?

Paul’s answer? Another timeworn appeal to revelation. Paul’s own account—in conflict with the secondhand versions from Acts—offers no details. While Paul’s passion and resourceful—even if inventive—argumentation was instrumental in the early years, the struggling early Christian cult that resulted was placed in serious jeopardy by Paul’s death. Absent the energy provided by Paul’s spirited claims about revelation, the Paladin of Christian theology seemed doomed to wither away like the now-proverbial fig that Jesus himself had been said to curse.

Everything was at stake, including the integrity of the divine promise itself—the promise that God would reward and protect his followers. Could promises about salvation be revitalized?

Marketing the Messiah. Enter Mark. Writing perhaps as early as 70 CE—almost a decade after the death of Paul—this earliest of Gospel writers (as history has confirmed) was more than equal to the challenge. At a time when the world was brimming with apocalyptic thinkers, world-shakers, wisdom teachers, and healers, Mark understood all too clearly that if the Jesus movement was to prosper, Jesus would have to stand out against this background. The strategy for doing so is one that Mark signals early. And so, in chapter 1, and in distinction from the renowned John the Baptist, Jesus is first recognized and then endorsed by God himself. Moreover, as Burton L. Mack and others have argued, Mark was not content with having the miracles allegedly performed by Jesus place Jesus in the company of a line of earlier prophets—such as Elijah, for whom the heavens also opened or Moses, who had performed similar feats of controlling the waters (at the Red Sea) and of providing food and drink for huge numbers of people (in the desert). Jesus would do these things too, but that wouldn’t be enough.

Mark takes license with the available stories and conveys them as episodic accounts of a cosmic battle in which Jesus exorcised demons, wrestled with Satan, and experienced the weakness of, yet prevailed against, human frailty. It is precisely this shift—from wisdom to magic—that the Gospel writers were intent upon exercising, and faith was the vehicle by which the magic was to arrive.

But Mark is also careful to present Jesus as a very charismatic figure. People warm to him, and he to them, on a very direct and personal level. They respond to his typically quiet yet intriguing presence and wallow in his elegant and biting indictments of the Jewish leadership—one that is laced with extravagance, insensitivity, and hypocrisy. They are spellbound and filled with hope upon hearing his message and witnessing Jesus’s concern for them. They sense his agony as he nears Jerusalem, and they fear for him—and themselves. The fate of both the divine and the human appear deeply, but precariously, intertwined.

And so the stage is set for the ultimate miracle. Under Mark’s skillful orchestration, the picture snaps into focus precisely when this sympathetic and heroic figure is betrayed—by someone close, someone who ought to have been appreciative, devoted, and trustworthy. When fingered, Jesus gathers his courage, steps forth, and not only identifies himself but also gently curtails the outbreak of violence with first a word, then a healing gesture. A sense of Jesus’s greatness rushes to the fore. It is here that the imaginative power of Mark’s approach begins its crescendo. Rough treatment is followed by sharp interrogation from accusers whose questions are designed to spring an ingenious trap. There is really only one issue that is pertinent now that Jesus is in custody and unprotected.

Asked directly whether he is the son of God, any denial seems to expose Jesus as a cowardly fraud and thereby brings a quick end to any further influence. The Jesus movement will be over. But if Jesus answers courageously—and of all the Gospel writers, it is Mark and Mark alone who, in leading the way, sees the importance of having Jesus give a clear and emphatic affirmative answer—Jesus then falls prey to the charge of blasphemy. Because conviction of blasphemy carries the death penalty under Mosaic law, Jesus’s fate is quickly sealed. So when Jesus not only declares that he is the son of God and goes on to say that he will return and sit on the right hand of the throne of God—effectively, to judge them—accusations turn to rage.

Here, the Gospel writers seize the moment to underwrite the Pauline rationale as to why salvation is now available to the Gentiles. It is the Jews who, Paul has told us in 1 Thessalonians, “killed the lord Jesus.” And so in Mark’s Gospel scenes of betrayal and scandalous brutality, we know exactly why the Gentiles are in and the Jews are out. Both Matthew and John will later further embellish this moment.

But it is Mark’s Gospel that will first etch out the details of a bitter and unbearable agony. Condemned to death, all will soon see not only how he suffers but how falsely Jesus has been accused and convicted. Meanwhile, we can only helplessly witness the horror that now unfolds. The condemned, suffering martyr is scorned, stripped, beaten, and driven through the streets by soldiers until he is finally stretched out—nails cruelly biting into tender flesh—upon the cross. It is only then that the true agony begins. Even today, with scores of millions having flocked to see The Passion of the Christ, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful drama.

Mark never loses touch with his objective. When we see this charismatic and gentle figure betrayed, castigated, humiliated, and tortured because of alleged blasphemy, we no longer wonder whether he is the son of God. We want him to be the son of God; justice demands it! We will have him on the cross only as a martyr, and we want him vindicated. And as his vindication is our salvation, we need him on the cross, and we need him there as the son of God. Vicarious crucifixion is revelation enough for us.

So, in the aftermath of the crucifixion, we no longer really care that the Jews are excluded. Mark has displaced the urgency of that issue. We are readied for a “deeper” sense of justice. Thus when Matthew later tells us that the very cities of the killers of Christ are to be laid to waste, and thereafter adorns Mark’s characterization of a Jewish crowd by turning them into rabid mobs filling the streets, then the scales of justice have been transformed into a reckoning. It all feels right; it “feels like . . . victory” (Apocalypse Now). The inclusion/exclusion problem can be laid to rest.

Only grace remains. How sweet will be the resurrection!

But no one comes.

And so, as we have seen, the story is hollow at the core. While it is not difficult to grasp how the deception was orchestrated, it nonetheless collapses under its own weight. And once the narrative is distanced from its emotional impact, we also do not need to debate the formidable challenges of theology and morality left in its train. The resurrection-based narrative has zero plausibility. The bulk of those who were either followers or enemies of Jesus would have certainly clamored to witness the ultimate phase of the drama. They did not; there was not a thought nor a whisper. Therefore, we know that Mark’s story is a fabrication. It never happened.

 

Conclusions

Christ? Might Jesus still have been the son of God? We now know there is absolutely no reason to think so. Mark’s story—crafted for the very purpose of providing us with the best evidence for so believing through the account of the greatest miracle—simply fails to deliver.

What other options did Mark have for marketing the Messiah? Could he have written a more believable story—a story with all the requisite witnesses of something truly unique and utterly miraculous? No. This is not a story he could sell—unless it had happened that way. Everyone knew it didn’t. Hence, Mark had few options. The one thing he could not sell was a major miracle story in which all the Jews, Romans, other Gentiles, Joseph of Arimathea, family, and disciples were actually present.

Mark’s only alternative then was to market a Messiah through the back door, through a story that deprived the key miracle scene of the very witnesses it required. That his effort was a success is a tribute to his genius. That we see through it is our responsibility.

Jesus? Still, there may well have been a historical Jesus who distinguished himself with a message about human salvation through his parabolic talk about the Kingdom of God. If so, then to see what these parables have to say when freed from their theological trappings may bring us closer both to the inspirational message of the historical Jesus and to a viable—and perhaps secular—notion of the salvific life. If such an attempt is successful, then something of Jesus will have been saved. But Christ has vanished. And he shall not return; he was never here.

 

David K. Clark

David K. Clark teaches philosophy at the University of Montana. He is the author of two books: Empirical Meaning and the Generative Ground of Morality (Lexington Books, 2003) and Mile High Redemption: Evangelical Christianity and a Child’s Quest for Truth (CreateSpace, 2012), as well as various articles on metaphysics and the philosophy of religion.


Even granting the possibility of miracles, once we grasp what the resurrection saga means and how it would have had to unfold, we can be certain that it never took place.

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