Whatever Became of Jesus?

Most Westerners are familiar with the story of Jesus Christ—perhaps the greatest moral teacher of all time. While the gospels devote many pages to his life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, the accounts of what happened to him after that are minimal. One would think, once Jesus was physically back walking on the earth after his resurrection, that the story of what became of the rest of his life would receive substantial coverage in the New Testament. But it is barely mentioned at all. Maybe there are reasons for this.

The Gospel of Matthew devotes 156 verses to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. But only 15 verses are devoted to the resurrection and only four verses address his life after that. They mention only that Jesus was seen by some of the disciples. There is no mention of the Ascension or any other explanation of what became of Jesus.

Mark likewise devotes 156 verses to the crucifixion. Eighteen verses cover the resurrection and only two verses address Jesus’ life beyond that, saying only that he was “taken up.”

In Luke 127 verses are devoted to the crucifixion, 49 to the resurrection and three to Jesus’ life beyond. Luke too says only that he was “taken up.” Again there is no elaboration; we are left to guess exactly what “taken up” means.

John devotes 190 verses to the crucifixion, 54 to the resurrection and two to Jesus’ life beyond that. There is no mention at all of what happened to him after the resurrection; the story simply ends.

A general rule of thumb in storytelling is that the amount of coverage of an event is directly related to the importance of that event. For example, all the gospels go into great detail about Jesus’ crucifixion and the events leading up to it. It is very high drama and deserves a lot of coverage. Substantially less coverage is devoted to the resurrection. And once Jesus dies and is resurrected, the issue of his physical presence on earth and what becomes of his life is hardly mentioned at all.

We assume that once a person is living on earth in a physical body that he will live out his life until he dies. While two of the gospels mention Jesus being “taken up,” it is mentioned very briefly almost as an explanatory aside. They don’t explain what “taken up” means. One would think that this would be an extremely important event that would have been witnessed by most if not all of the disciples and receive substantial coverage and elaboration in the gospels, but not so.

Human beings are curious by nature; we want to know the outcome of things. Mark and Luke offer only minimal explanations which pretty much leave us hanging. The other two gospels don’t even attempt to explain what became of Jesus after the resurrection. It’s like his resurrected body never even existed.

The earliest gospel, Mark, was written some 30 years after Jesus’ death. None of the gospels was written by eye-witnesses to Jesus life; all were second hand accounts. When people write about a dramatic actual event—something they are absolutely certain that happened (as with the crucifixion)—they provide as much elaboration and detail as possible. When they write about something they’re not so sure about, they tend to quickly gloss it over, or simply avoid it altogether.

Mark and Luke apparently felt that they owed their readers explanations, even if they were uncertain about the “taken up” account. Matthew and John apparently could not bring themselves to go this far; to report something they doubted, and so left the purported last chapter of Jesus’ life untold rather than report a perceived fabrication.

If we have doubts about Jesus’ existence after the resurrection then this casts doubts about a much larger issue—the resurrection itself. For if Jesus in fact really didn’t bodily exist after the resurrection, then he could not have been resurrected in the first place. There is little doubt that his body was missing; but there are plenty of more plausible scenarios that could explain this besides Jesus coming back to life. And if he was never resurrected in the first place, then the whole evangelical (mythical) interpretation of the reason for his existence here on Earth (dying for our sins and resurrecting to ensure eternal life for true believers) comes into serious question.

What is it about human beings that we need happily-ever-after stories of resurrection and vicarious atonement about someone who lived 2,000 years ago? Why can’t we be satisfied to receive the profound moral teachings of realized spiritual masters who occasionally inhabit the earth and leave it at that? And why can’t we simply live in gratitude for our lives and so do our best to live up to the standards these teachers have so selflessly given us?

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