Were Appearances of the Risen Jesus Real or Visionary?

Were Appearances of the Risen Jesus Real or Visionary? March 1, 2023


The Transfiguration. All three synoptic gospels of the New Testament record that Jesus took his three disciple–Peter, James, and John–up a mountain to pray (Matt. 17.1; Mark 9.2; Luke 9.28). The apostle Matthew then says of Jesus, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt. 17.2-3 NRSV). Were those actual appearances of Moses and Elijah, or were they visions? Only Matthew answers this question by also reporting, “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead'” (v. 9).

Jesus did not mean that he himself and his transfiguration were a vision, but that Moses and Elijah were a vision and therefore not actual appearances of human beings. Well then, after Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead, were his several post-resurrection appearances also recorded in these gospels visions like that of the formerly dead Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? Not at all.

Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Appearances. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on Jesus’ resurrection since I wrote a screenplay on his post-resurrection appearances, a 100-page apparatus justifying script scenes based on archaeology, tradition, history, etc., and about 25 pages in my book The Gospels Interwoven, endorsed by evangelist Billy Graham, as the original basis of the screenplay. I show in this material that Jesus post-resurrection appearances were not visions, but the appearance of an actual human being, though one risen from the dead.

For instance, on Easter evening the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples who were gathered together in the Upper Room, which was probably where Jesus and his apostles had eaten the Last Supper. Luke relates, “While they were talking . . . Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself'” (Luke 24.36-39). Why did Jesus say to look at his hands and feet? They bore the healed scars from the nails that held him on the cross. That should have been proof enough that this was the real Jesus risen from the dead, thus not a vision.

But then Luke says Jesus continued, providing them with more proof by saying, “‘Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet” (Luke 24.39-40). It does not matter whether they did what he said, touching him, or not; them seeing the healed crucifixion wounds was proof enough.

But then Jesus provided further proof. For, Luke continues, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24.41-43). I believe in ghosts. They are spirits that can make themselves visible. But they are not flesh; therefore, they cannot eat food. That is why Jesus did that. It was further proof that he was not a ghost, a spirit, but an actual human being, though one risen from the dead with a glorious resurrection body that will never die.

Another example that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the New Testament gospels were not visions of Jesus is that one week after Easter the risen Jesus appeared again to the gathered disciples, probably in the Upper Room again, and said to the doubting apostle Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (John 20.27). Again, it makes no difference whether Thomas did or not; the fact that Jesus told him to do it is proof that what Thomas saw was the resurrected Jesus and therefore not a vision of him.

The Gospel of Paul the Apostle. All of this evidence is important for verifying that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, never to die again because he had a glorious, resurrection body. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection is essential to being a Christian, that is, to being saved and having the promise of eternal life. For the apostle Paul wrote, “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news [=gospel] that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.1-4).

(See also “Were Jesus Resurrection Appearances Visions?” in which I address more scripture and mention Bart Ehrman’s book on this subject.)

(See also, “Review of Bart Ehrman’s Book, ‘How Jesus Became God’–Part 1 of 3,” in which he argues that all of the NT accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples were “visions.”)

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