The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus
by: James Thomson
from Satires and Profanities by James Thomson (B.V.), 1884, a collection of his essays previously published in the freethought press.
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In reviewing Mr. R. H. Hutton’s Essay on “Christian Evidences, Popular and Critical,” I was obliged to follow his lead, joining issue on such pleas as he put forward. Thus with regard to the resurrection of Jesus, as Mr. Hutton adduced what he thought confirmatory evidence only from the New Testament itself, I confined myself to showing or attempting to show that such evidence is unsubstantial. But I could not consider this argument adequate or conclusive, for there are large general considerations of incomparably greater importance which it leaves out altogether. It is as if a case ruled by broad principles of equity were to be decided on the narrowest technical grounds. Therefore, while confident that even on these grounds the case must go against the Christian believer I wish to add a few words on its wider relations, in order that the decision may be established, not merely by the letter of the law, but also by the spirit of justice.
We leave thus the torturing of texts in the dim cells of the theological Inquisition, a process by which almost any confession required can be and has been wrung from the unfortunate victims, and emerge into the open daylight of common-sense and reason. And here I venture to assert that if the story of the resurrection and ascension were recorded of any other than Jesus in any other sacred book than the Bible, Mr. Hutton and all other intelligent Christians would not only disbelieve it, but would not even condescend to investigate it, condemning it offhand as too preposterous to be worthy of serious attention. Thus, what Christian has ever deigned to examine critically the marvels affirmed in the Koran, such as Mohammed’s visit to heaven ; although the Koran can be traced far more surely to the Prophet of Islam than can the Gospels to their reputed authors, and this Prophet bears a far higher character for truthfulness than do the early Christians? Nay, what Bibliolater has ever seriously weighed the evidence for the miracles of his fellow Christian the great St. Bernard ; such as those which are minutely related and solemnly attested by ten eye-witnesses, men well known and of unimpeached veracity, and which are thus infinitely better attested than any miracle in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation ?
Your enlightened Protestant simply shrugs his shoulders at all such stories, and says with a superior smile : “ Of course, mere imposture and collusion, or superstition and delusion ; no sensible man can afford to waste his time in weighing that sort of stuff; we don’t think twice before determining whether the impossible ever really occurred.” How, then, can this enlightened Protestant receive without question the miracles of the Jewish books while rejecting without question all others. ? We have seen that it cannot be because of any superiority of evidence for the former, since the evidence for the latter is in many cases infinitely greater and better authenticated, and since he does not attempt to weigh evidence before either accepting or rejecting, though he may seek evidence and argument to confirm what he has already given himself to believe. He accepts the Jewish miracles simply because they have come down to him, through many generations of his forefathers, invested with a glamor of sanctity, and he regards them with the eye of faith which sees, and sees not, just what it wishes ; he rejects miracles not in the Bible because they come to him without any hallowed associations, and he regards them with the eye of reason which beholds the plain facts before it, and neither wishes nor is able to, avoid beholding them.
It is worth noting that while our Christian advocates insist with all their might, such as it is, upon the resurrection of Jesus, they willingly pass over as lightly as possible, if they do not altogether ignore, a similar miracle guaranteed by the very same authority. In Matt. xxvii., 52, 53, it stands recorded among the marvels following the death of ,Jesus : “And the graves were opened ; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of their graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” The reader of Shakespeare will remember the prodigies anterior to the death of Julius Caesar when—
“The sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.”
This prodigal multiplicity and superfluity of resurrections seems to have been not a little embarrassing to modern Christian champions, though doubtless it did not in the least trouble the primitive non-scientific believers, to whom nothing was more natural than the unnatural, including the supernatural and the infranatural. An apologist of our days who must affirm the one resurrection, seeing that his whole religion is based upon it upon it, and who, though valiantly defying science, seeks to conciliate historical possibility, finds his task quite heavy enough in accounting for the facts that the risen Jesus “was seen of above five hundred brethren at once,” and yet that no record of his rising can be found beyond the limits of the New Testament. But the difficulties of the poor apologist are enormously increased if he must further contend that many bodies of the saints came out of their graves, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many, and still there is no external evidence. We are surely at the utmost limits of the possible in conceiving that Jesus could appear unto five hundred of the brethren at once (there is no hint elsewhere that he had so many permanent followers in his lifetime ; in Acts i., 15, we find that there were about one hundred and twenty gathered after the ascension), without the priests and the Roman officials hearing of the apparition and investigating it, But if many others rose from their graves and appeared to many, it is absolutely impossible that anyone in Jerusalem could be ignorant of the miracle ; equally impossible that Pilate and his officers did not investigate it, and equally impossible that finding it real he did not report it with the evidence to Rome, for the Empire was a thoroughly organised State, and the Romans were a thoroughly practical and business-like people. Once in the imperial archives, the record of the miracle would have spread everywhere ; all subsequent historians would have related it, all subsequent writers referred to it. So it is no wonder that, recoiling from these manifold impossibilities, the Christian advocates prefer to dwell on the one resurrection as if it were unique, and avoid dwelling on the others that by the very same testimony immediately followed it. It is very significant that neither in the Acts nor, in the Epistles is there any allusion to these resurrections. When Peter and the others were preaching the resurrection of Christ, why did they not adduce and produce: of these many risen saints whose visible, tangible living and speaking evidence would have been irresistible ?
Just as the resurrection of Jesus could be accepted without misgiving by the: non-scientific early Christians to whom miracles appeared among the most frequent occurrence of life, so could the ascension. Their earth was a plane, vaulted by the sky, lamped by thy little sun and moon and stars ; above this vault was Heaven, where their God dwelt enthroned ; they knew nothing of the law of gravitation ; their Christ, standing in the flesh on the Mount of Olives, floated up through this vault to sit enthroned beside his Father in the most natural supernatural manner. We can conceive and sympathise with this simple faith ; but it is hard to conceive and sympathise with the blind faith, which seems wilfully blind, of the modern educated Christians. It has obeen often remarked that Copernicus and Kepler and Newton have destroyed all the old mythologies, including of course the mythology of both the Old and New Testaments. With the earth no longer the universe of mortal life, between a Heaven above its domed firmament and a Hades like a vast dungeon beneath, but a quite infinitesimal grain of sand involved by an infinitesimal drop of dew, floating and revolving in an ocean of space boundless in heighth and depth and breadth, amidst innumerable other spherules, most of which visible are very much greater than itself, and at inconceivable distances from it ; with man no longer the lord of the creation, for whose service all things were made, but an animalcule inexpressibly small, living for a moment inexpressibly brief, with limitless time before his beginning and limitless time beyond his end; the Christian mythology and system, among others, because ineffably absurd. Where is the Heaven for its God ? where the Hell for its Devil ? Where is above ? Where beneath “? Whence came the winged angels, with their wings which would not enable them to fly ?
If Jesus had ascended and continued to ascend with the speed of light, he might be ascending now and go on ascending for millions and millions of years, and still not reach a heavenly region beyond the range of our telescopes ! And think of the scheme of the Atonement in the system of the universe, as we are learning to know it, now -- try to conceive an infinite and eternal God of this infinite and eternal Whole sacrificing his only son for the salvation of us most insignificant insects on our most insignificant earth ! The immense conceptions of science dwarf these petty conceptions of mythology to a littleness which reduces them beneath consideration, which in our days reduces them even beneath contempt.
Naturally the churches have always hated and resisted science, and the theologians have seldom dared to face its conclusions. They ignore the immensities, and confine their vision to the pages of a single book, to a history whose chronology counts not six thousand years. But, as I have remarked, even this minute field they cannot hold against the sceptic, who has made them abandon all the rest of the universe. Why did their risen Lord only slink about among his own disciples, appearing to these but at flying instants; why did he not, with his well-known features and with the wounds of the nails and the spear in his body, confront the chief priests and Pilate and the whole of Jerusalem, and compel them to acknowledge and bear enduring witness to his resurrection ? Why did he not summon all the people from the highest to the lowest to the solemn spectacle of his ascension, securing multitudinous and permanently recorded evidence such as none of us could doubt,? We might go on asking Why ? and Why ? and Why ? in this fashion on a hundred points, confident that to not one of our questions could the Christian apologist give a straightforward and satisfactory answer. As the scheme of the Atonement is presented to us, God sacrificed his only son that all mankind might be saved through belief in him ; yet not merely neglected to secure trustworthy evidence and certain record of this supreme fact and the miracles attesting it,, but, adopted every means possible to make the evidence untrustworthy, the record uncertain, the miracles and the sacrifice incredible.