Some critics have raised the objection that Jesus’ appearance to the apostle Paul on Damascus Road was purely spiritual or visionary in nature. Does this mean Christ’s Resurrection appearances in the Gospels were spiritual also?
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time (1 Corinthians 15:6-8 bold mine).
Some critics use the verse above, in conjunction with the book of Acts, to argue for a spiritual interpretation of the Resurrection of Jesus. It appears that Jesus’ appearance to Paul on Damascus Road was spiritual or visionary in nature and because Paul equates his appearance with those of the disciples and the five hundred, they experienced something spiritual or visionary too. From the beginning, it was never meant to be physical in the way the Gospels portrayed it.
So why was Paul placing himself in the list of eyewitnesses and how have critics come to this conclusion?
Let’s take a look at the verses in the book of Acts that record Paul’s conversion,
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man (Acts 9:3-7).
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do. And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus (Acts 22:6-11).
Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance (Acts 26:12-20).
All of these passages record Paul experiencing an encounter with the risen Christ; an encounter that leaves his life changed and his convictions abolished. Is there a difference between this encounter and the ones in the Gospels to the disciples? Critics argue that there is, considering that the risen Christ appears only as a “great light” and a “voice,” as opposed to the Gospels, where He appears as a physical, human body that can eat and drink.
Let’s assume that the appearance was subjectively spiritual or visionary in nature. The first question to ask is why critics are even referring to the book of Acts at all? Many critics attempt to date the book of Acts to around 90 or 100 A.D. or even later. If we are going by the earliest sources then, by the standard of many online skeptics, Acts does not qualify. If Acts were to qualify as an early source reliable enough to glean an idea of what the earliest Christians believed about the Resurrection, then the Gospel of Luke should also count as an early and reliable source.
Maybe we could reserve a late date for Acts while arguing that the appearance to Paul on Damascus Road was an early tradition? The problem is, by this point (again, assuming a late date for Acts), the legend has supposedly become a physical resurrection. Why does the book of Acts include an outdated tradition three times over? Why not leave this out?
If we summarize the argument critics make by utilizing these passages in Acts we find nothing more than circular reasoning.
- The earliest Christians didn’t believe in a physical resurrection.
- How do you know?
- Because Paul didn’t teach a physical resurrection
- Why do you think that?
- Because Acts records Paul having a spiritual vision
- Why you believe that’s an early account?
- Because Paul doesn’t teach physical resurrection.
- Therefore, the earliest Christians didn’t believe in a physical resurrection
Why should the conversion and vision of Paul be an accurate record of history and not the rest of Acts? There is no reason to signal out Paul’s conversion as an accurate portrayal of the Resurrection belief while concluding that the rest of Acts and Luke, or at the very least a significant portion of them, aren’t also a reliable depiction of history and/or what the earliest Christians believed.
Another counter-point we can make is that even if the skeptic’s interpretation of Paul’s encounter was correct, it does not follow that all of the appearances were spiritual also. The creed Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15 does not mention what they saw but rather who saw it which, of course, does not imply that all of the appearances were of the same nature.
Thus far I’ve given skeptics the benefit of the doubt and assumed that Paul’s encounter was purely spiritual. However, there are good reasons to believe otherwise. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that the passages record extra-mental phenomenon accompanying the appearance. We read about a great light that left Paul blind for three days (Acts 9:8-9) and that Paul’s companions also heard a voice (Acts 9:7) and saw a light (Acts 22:9). Luke records the encounter as an objective phenomenon and not something subjective and inwardly.
We may anticipate the accusation that Luke crafted or fabricated these aspects of the story. Once again, I see no reason to lean into this accusation besides an a-priori rejection of the spiritual. If Luke wanted to have the encounter be a spiritual one, why mention Paul’s compansions seeing and hearing something too? If he wanted it to be a physical resurrection similar to the Gospels, why the difference? Why did Jesus appear as a blinding light and a voice indecipherable to all but Paul and not as a person who could, say, invite them all out to lunch? The answer is that either one of those would be inconsistent with Luke’s narrative. In Luke’s Gospel, he records Jesus rising from the dead, appearing to the disciples, and then ascending to Heaven until He appeared to Paul in a blinding, heavenly light. Luke records a difference between the pre-ascension and post-ascension Jesus while retaining His objective existence from beginning to end.
If we wish to argue that this is a product of legendary development then the inconsistency in the skeptic’s interpretation allows us to spin it in the opposite direction. We may argue that the difference between Paul’s encounter and that of the disciples exists because Luke had to develop the narrative in a spiritual and/or heavenly direction to get away from the explicit physicalism of the early belief!
We should not stop there. William Lane Craig notes that when Paul shares his “visions and revelations” from the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:1-7) he does not include Jesus’ appearance to him on Damascus Road. The early Christians understood and were familiar with spiritual visions and they made a point to differentiate them from the risen Jesus.
Finally, what of Paul equating his encounter with the disciples in 1 Corinthians 15:8? Craig explains,
…..in placing himself in the list, Paul is not trying to put the appearances to the others on a plane with his own; rather he is trying to level up his own experience to the objectivity and reality of the others. Paul’s detractors doubted or denied his apostleship (I Cor 9. 1-2; II Cor 11.5; 12.11) and his having seen Christ would be an important argument in his favor (Gal 1.1, 11-12, 15-16; I Cor 9. 1-2; 15.8-9). His opponents might tend to dismiss Paul’s experience as a mere subjective vision, not a real appearance, and so Paul is anxious to include himself with the other apostles as a recipient of a genuine, objective appearance of the risen Lord. By putting himself in the list, Paul is saying that what he saw was every bit as much a real appearance of Jesus as what they saw.
What did the Christians see that day and what were they telling others about? I’ve looked at the biggest and most often recited arguments from the online skeptic community that have attempted to prove that the earliest Christians were teaching a spiritual resurrection. I’ve found them all to be severely lacking. It is without question that the early Christians defined the Resurrection of Jesus as something inherently physical and objective. This does not mean that the Resurrection really was physical, but we know that that is precisely what the earliest Christians taught and going forward that is how we should define it.