The Resurrection of Jesus — part 4, Literal or Allegorical?
This is the latest in an ongoing conversation between Gerald R.Baron and myself about the resurrection of Jesus. It isn’t necessary to have read everything that has gone before but, in order to follow my train of thought, it would be helpful to have read at least the previous article on the Virgin Birth (which also contains links to the earlier articles if you are interested). Baron is trying to persuade me that this was an actual physical event, that Jesus literally died, then returned to life. I am not convinced.
The obvious objection to my point of view is that all four Gospels say that a human Jesus died and was resurrected. At least they appear to. As a brief aside, I’ll just mention that the Gospel of John seems to give some strong underlying hints that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, which adds further complications to any analysis. (I’ve discussed that in this earlier article in the series — and in more detail here.) Putting that idea to one side, however, let’s stick with the surface level of John, which agrees with the other three Gospels that there was a death and resurrection. If I’m right that this was not literally true, then we would have to find an explanation for this; what might have been the actual intentions of the authors?
We don’t know who wrote the Gospels, to what groups or communities their authors belonged, or what their motivations were. Furthermore, we know that the Gospels as we have them are not necessarily the original versions, and have been subject to changes by later writers. The purpose of this editing was usually to make the Gospels conform to the later agreed theology. Some examples of this are reasonably clear, but there may be others which have not been identified.
We therefore don’t know for certain what the original message of the Gospels was, or whether the later Church understood the texts correctly. We do know, however, that it organised book burning on a grand scale, presumably in an attempt to obliterate anything which contradicted the message it wanted to promote. The authors of the Gospels may have had an agenda completely different from the obvious one of telling a historical story. I’ll explore that possibility now.
They may have been members of esoteric groups — what in modern times have become known as secret societies. The teachings of such groups were sometimes closely guarded secrets; in some cases initiates swore oaths not to reveal these secrets on pain of death. If anything was written down, it would have been expressed in allegorical language, so that members would understand, but the meaning would be hidden from outsiders. It is clear even from the synoptic Gospels that Jesus was from such a group, for there are frequent references to him revealing the hidden mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven to his Apostles, while not revealing these to the general populace, to whom he spoke in parables. It is even clearer in the Gospel of John where he criticises the Pharisee Nicodemus for being completely ignorant about the esoteric understanding of rebirth — thus what resurrection in the spiritual sense really means.
It is also worth noting that the Apostle Paul spoke in the same terms, especially in 1 Corinthians, of an inner circle and outer circle of believers. Those in the inner circle are described as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikoi) and the outer circle is variously translated as ‘unspiritual’, ‘carnal’, ‘of the flesh’. It is clear that Paul considers the Corinthians he is addressing to be from the second group: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh”¹.
It is clear therefore that Jesus and Paul, as they appear in the New Testament, were both teachers from such esoteric groups, presumably the same one. My suggestion is therefore that the story of Jesus as found in the gospels could well be an esoteric allegory (solid food), and not intended to be understood literally as history (milk), especially in relation to the events surrounding the death and resurrection.
Ego-death and rebirth is a well known stage of the human spiritual journey, following which the initiate undertakes further work in order to progress onward and upward towards reunion with the divine essence (ascension to Heaven). The story of Jesus, as it appears in the Gospels, could easily be one such story from a Mystery School. Whether it is the story of an actual initiate, or whether it is merely a ‘fictional’ story describing the life of a typical initiate, is an open question. (For what it’s worth, one hypothetical possibility is that the head of the School, called Jesus in the texts, is portrayed as undergoing what is necessary to become like him, so that the teacher and the teaching have been assimilated into one story.)
Following this train of thought, it is interesting to note that two out of the three best known Christian creeds, the Athanasian and the Apostles, both say that Jesus descended to hell, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Yet there is no mention of this whatsoever in the four accounts in the Gospels, the original sources for the supposed life of Jesus. It is not even mentioned in the Nicene Creed of 325, the first comprehensive statement of Christian belief². This idea must therefore have originated from some other source.
Later attempts to account for it by reference to Scripture often cite:
- 1 Peter 3.18–19: “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”.
- Ephesians 4.9, where the author, assumed to be Paul, having referred to a text which mentions Jesus’s ascension, adds in parentheses: “When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (NRSV translations).
These are hardly compelling justifications for claiming that Jesus descended into hell following his death. The second is a mere supposition, in any case false logic based on a misunderstanding of ‘ascension’, and the first could easily have alternative interpretations. That is clear, even before we note that modern scholarship considers Ephesians to be one of the inauthentic epistles, thus not written by Paul, rather a later Christian apologist. The same is probably true of 1 Peter, which could not have been written by a Galilean fisherman, at least not in the form which has come down to us.
So why does this statement appear so prominently in these two creeds? As in the case of the Virgin Birth, again it seems that the authors have been influenced by the stories of the pagan gods/hero figures. Thus Tom Harpur says: “Almost every traditional faith the world over rests on a central story of the son of a heavenly king who goes down into a dark lower world, suffering, dying, and rising again, before returning to his native upper world… This king/god wins a victory over his enemies, has a triumphant procession, and is enthroned on high”. He says that there are somewhere between 30 and 50 such figures³. He lists some of the better known ones, then refers to Kersey Graves’ book The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours.
If we are generous to the Church and accept that Jesus did actually die and was resurrected, we would still be left wondering why they made such a fuss about this, since it was apparently nothing unusual.
The next question would therefore be how we should understand such figures. Are they merely mythological, ‘fictional’ creations, or are they telling the story of the soul’s descent into matter and return to the heavenly realms, thus an allegory of the spiritual journey of every human being?
In that context, there was a recent Medium article by Noel Corpuz, in which he described four realms of human existence “where one may find himself exist in this earthly life before his appointment with his maker, God”. (I hope he does not mean to exclude women.) The second, third, and fourth are interesting for the purposes of my argument. They are:
- the “Realm of Sin — In Satan, leading to Eternal Death”, which sounds remarkably like hell. He says that “in this realm, man is destined to die”.
- Restored unto “Neutral/Common Realm in New Creation — In Christ Jesus”. “The new man of the new creation must receive the breath of God to be revived into a new person”. This sounds remarkably like the resurrection.
- the “Realm of the Spirit — In Christ Immanuel, leading to Eternal Life”. This sounds somewhat like ascension to Heaven.
It is important to note that these four realms he describes are the spiritual journey of a human being, not of a god. Yet there is a close correspondence with the supposed events in the life of Jesus. Why should we not therefore entertain the possibility that the story in the Gospels is also that of a human being? Might it be the description of the stages in the life of a spiritual aspirant, an initiate in a Mystery tradition?
Other events in the life of Jesus could be interpreted in similar fashion, namely the Baptism and the Temptation. I’ll discuss the Baptism in more detail below, so here I’ll just say that, according to one train of thought, at that time Jesus is made aware that he is a specially chosen ‘Son of God’ thus, in the allegory, someone suitable for initiation.
According to the Gospel of Mark, following the baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” where he was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke provide much more detail. In Matthew’s account, “he fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished”, at which point the Temptation began. After Jesus had passed the three tests, “suddenly angels came and waited on him”.
An esoteric understanding of these events might be something along these lines. As soon as Jesus has been identified as a chosen one, that is someone suitable as an initiate in a Mystery tradition, he has to prepare himself. It is well known that candidates for the Mysteries had to adopt an ascetic lifestyle, including fasting. Once accepted into the School, secret knowledge and skills would be entrusted to them, which would be very dangerous in the wrong hands, hence the strict oaths of secrecy (punishable even by death, as in the Pythagorean tradition). Once he has sworn these oaths, he is welcomed into the inner circle of the group (waited on by angels).
This is what seems to be happening to Jesus here. It is being revealed to him what powers he will acquire, and he has to promise absolutely that he will not abuse them. ‘Satan’ here might well symbolise the dark side of human nature, the evil lurking within. As the well-known saying goes: All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you are going to be entrusted with absolute spiritual power, those who teach you have to be certain that you will not abuse it. In modern psychological language we would say that Jesus is being forced to contemplate his shadow-side or unconscious power complex, which he has to be able to overcome.
Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society and deeply knowledgeable about esoteric matters, says: “The temptation of Jesus is the most dramatic occasion in which Satan appears… The scene of the probation was the wilderness. In the desert about the Jordan and the Dead Sea were the abodes of the ‘sons of the prophets’, and the Essenes. These ascetics used to subject their neophytes to probations, analogous to the tortures of the Mithraic rites; and the temptation of Jesus was evidently a scene of this character… The Devil, in (Luke’s account), is evidently no malignant principle, but one exercising discipline. In this sense the terms Devil and Satan are repeatedly employed”⁴.
Here she is referring primarily to passages in Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. So here we have drawn together the ideas of a human candidate for initiation, the ancient Mystery schools, Paul’s relationship to the same Mystery tradition — Corinthians was the Epistle I referred to above — and the whole scene an esoteric procedure described in allegorical language.
Returning now to the theme of Jesus descending into ‘hell’ — Hades, which is better understood as the spirit-world — the descent into the underworld is a typical feature of the spiritual journey of (mythical?) hero-figures, for example Aeneas, Odysseus, Hercules, Orpheus. In later times, the Christian understanding of hell took over, thus Dante’s spiritual journey is in three stages, beginning with a descent into hell, and leading eventually to his ascension to heaven. In Goethe’s Faust, the pact with Mephistopheles could be interpreted allegorically as a descent into hell — it is certainly a descent into the dark side of his nature — and in part 2 Faust actually journeys into the underworld. The text concludes with the line “The Eternal Feminine leads us above”, which is a clear parallel with the figure of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy, who guides Dante on his journey to Paradise.
Nobody, as far as I know, concludes from this that either Dante or Faust was God incarnate, and was the one-and-only saviour of humanity. This is because the authors were merely describing a spiritual journey available to all humans. Why should we not assume that the story of Jesus in the Gospels is also the allegorical story of one of these human hero figures?
It is also possible to draw parallels with Carl Jung’s version of the spiritual journey, which he calls the individuation process. Again there are three stages: the Shadow, in which individuals are compelled to confront the dark side of their nature (Hell), the Anima (the female aspect of a man, the equivalent of the Divine Feminine in Dante and Goethe) which leads on to the Self (the God-image in man, thus Ascension to Heaven). Jung saw the alchemical process of the transformation of lead into gold as an allegory of this process.
Thus death-resurrection-ascension is a recurrent theme of the spiritual journey of human beings, not necessarily that of God incarnate. It describes the return of the soul to the One as in neo-Platonism and spiritual traditions in general. The story of Jesus in the gospels seems to be yet one more version of such stories, which all describe a human being seeking to become godlike.
This is something that we can all aspire to, and could well be the true meaning of Christianity. This doctrine is known as theosis or deification and, what a surprise, Tim Redfern has outlined in this Medium article that “deification was commonly taught throughout the early Church”. That is to say, before the Church proclaimed that salvation could be achieved by believing in the historical figure of Jesus and worshipping him.
According to Matthew’s Gospel (6.48), this doctrine of deification was preached by Jesus himself: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”. It is also the teaching of the Perennial Philosophy, stated in clear terms in Hinduism, also in Sufism — the mystical branch of Islam — and by implication in Buddhism. Thus we have the Indian guru Meher Baba saying: “There is no difference in the realization of the Truth either by a Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or a Christian. The difference is only in words and terms. Truth is not the monopoly of a particular race or religion”, as quoted by David Gerken in this recent Medium article. Thus all roads/religions can lead to God. Isn’t this much more appealing than Christianity’s claim that it is the one true religion, and that belief in its version of Jesus is the sole means of salvation?
If we work on the assumption that Jesus was not God incarnate, and that the stories of the Virgin Birth and the death-resurrection-ascension motifs are mythological, allegorical additions, what are we left with? Because of the almost exclusive reliance in the Gospels on extraneous material, several writers and researchers — known as mythicists — have concluded that no Historical Jesus ever existed. Their arguments are reasonably persuasive but, in my opinion, not completely convincing. The mythology of the dying-and-resurrecting saviour god could have been added to the story of a human figure, who would have been some kind of spiritual teacher.
Relevant Medium articles have appeared recently. Two have discussed the concept of Lightworkers, one by Kimberley Fosu, and another by Tiffany. Ms. Fosu describes a Lightworker as “a soul that volunteers to come to earth to help humanity one way or another. These souls come on a service mission to the planet to help uplift and raise consciousness. They are responsible for bringing higher codes of light and love onto the planet”. If we strip away the mythological baggage of the divine incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and the death-resurrection-ascension motif, doesn’t that sound a lot like how Jesus is presented in the Gospels?
She continues: “Lightworkers are programmed to go through a spiritual awakening or a remembering phase at some point in their life where they suddenly remember who they are and what they came here to do”. That might well be what happened at Jesus’s Baptism. In Mark (1.11) God addresses Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. You would think that if Jesus were God incarnate, then he would not need to be told this. Matthew, whom scholars tend to agree had Mark as a source, seemingly aware of this problem, writes instead: “This is my Son…”, as if addressing the crowd.
The tradition which most strongly believes that Jesus was not born the divine Son of God is called Adoptionism; as the name suggests, it believes that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at some point in his life, most likely at his Baptism. Even in the texts as we have them, there is a suspicion of this, since all four Gospels place great importance upon the Baptism as the beginning of Jesus’s mission. Other versions were even closer to an adoptionist interpretation, but were edited in order to omit the material offensive to later Christianity.
The scholar Bart Ehrman notes that another version of Luke says: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. He believes that this is the earlier, and therefore more authentic, version in that it “was quoted a lot by early church fathers in the period before most of our manuscripts were produced. It is quoted in the second and third centuries everywhere from Rome, to Alexandria, to North Africa, to Palestine, to Gaul, to Spain”⁵. If it was quoted by them, perhaps this is what they actually believed. Applying the same logic, the text of Matthew just referred to may also have been the work of a later Christian editor, not of ‘Matthew’ himself. (I’ve discussed Adoptionism in detail in this article.)
All this sounds as though Jesus could have been one of Kimberly Fosu’s Lightworkers, who has a “remembering phase” at the moment of his Baptism. The teachings in the Gospels are perhaps not those of God incarnate, rather those of a Lightworker, who has come down to Earth to raise the consciousness of humans. Obvious possible examples of earlier Lightworkers would be the Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, and the anonymous authors of the Hindu texts. A later one would be Muhammad. We can also include Krishna, if one believes that he actually existed; he was after all the Son of God in human form, born of a virgin — in his case the son of the god Vishnu. It is even possible that ‘Son of God’ and ‘born of a virgin’ are code words in the Mystery schools for Lightworkers.
Where does all this lead us to? I am quite happy to contemplate the possibility that Jesus was a very special human being, perhaps the greatest of all Lightworkers up to that point in history — the culmination of a long tradition. He would therefore not be part of a religion with exclusive access to the truth, but would have to be understood within the context of the overall spiritual evolution of humanity. There is no reason to believe that he was God incarnate, or died and was resurrected. This may be true, but we cannot know for sure; it can only be a matter of faith. There are much simpler, more credible explanations, which are based on what we actually know about the history of the Catholic Church, and its determination to suppress all reasonable debate, and persecute anyone who dared to challenge its highly dubious theology.
Belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus led the Church to conclude that at the Day of Judgement true followers will also be physically resurrected from the dead; all three main creeds look forward to this. This is a bizarre belief, and probably impossible. The souls of these dead persons will most likely have reincarnated into other bodies. Are they suddenly going to leave these bodies and return to earlier ones? What will happen to the bodies they are leaving?
Of course, the Church conveniently denied belief in the soul’s pre-existence (therefore by implication reincarnation) as late as 553 CE in an edict known as the Anathema against Origen. Origen was one of the early Church Fathers (c.184-c.253), frequently described as the greatest in the period before the Council of Nicea. He believed in reincarnation. Ironically, on this occasion it was not really the Church itself, rather the Emperor Justinian who was so hostile to Origen’s ideas, and who pushed through the Anathema against the wishes of the Pope. (I’ve discussed this in an earlier article.)
According to the Catholic Church and its offspring, the story of Jesus as it appears in the Gospels is a historical fact, to be understood literally. Whether the theology handed down to us originated with the Church itself, or with the Roman Emperors, doesn’t really matter; in either case it is hard to believe. The alternative interpretation that I’ve offered says that the resurrection is a spiritual event available to all humans, not something to be understood physically. Teaching that one has to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus denies followers the opportunity to follow the true, and perhaps original, teaching — to die and be resurrected oneself.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- 1 Corinthians 3.2
- Interestingly, neither the Nicene Creed, nor its revised version the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, even say that Jesus died. He merely “suffered” and on “the third day he rose again”.
- The Pagan Christ, Thomas Allen, 2004, p 37
- Isis Unveiled, Volume II, Theosophical University Press, 1998, p 485
- Misquoting Jesus, HarperOne, 2005, p 159