Why did Jesus call his resurrection pointless?
Jesus’ resurrection is the single most important event defining Christianity. Whether Jesus was resurrected is therefore probably the most debated topic in contemporary religious discussions amongst millions of believers and non-believers. Typing in this article’s title in Google’s search bar gave an instant result of 1.37 million in less than a second. Browsing through the first ten pages of these results shows that the majority of them deal with the question whether this event really took place or not.
Out of those, most of the websites, blogs etc. seem to positively answer the question whether Jesus rose from the dead. You don’t even need to click on most of these to see how many simply repeat the “apostle” Paul’s age old circular argument:
We believe Jesus rose from the dead, therefore it happened and because it happened, we believe it.
I evidently did not go into each of the more than a million items but I can confidently state that few, if any, really give an answer to my question. I doubt there are a lot of Christians who would ever come up with this question, let alone honestly investigate its implications. A look at the first few hundred search results mentioned above already gives away as much. If they do read their holy books (few really do), they do so through the glasses of their deeply ingrained preconceptions. Many of them would therefore even miss the problem created by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as described by Luke 16: 19-31 [Verse numbers removed for reader’s convenience]. For if Jesus indeed existed, was crucified and resurrected from the dead, then why did Jesus call the resurrection of the dead in this passage pointless?
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Lazarus: lost, confused and ostracized after his resurrection by Jesus.
Given all we know about the development of early Christianity, the different forms within it and their representative views reflected in both canonical and apocryphal gospels, it is curious that we find the gospel according to Luke in its present form within the canon. Curious because at least in this one passage, the lesson given by Jesus in this parable seems so at odds with the entire purpose of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection…according to Christian orthodoxy. The last verse of this parable raises the exact question I’m posing here and seemed so embarrassing to some Christians’ idea of Jesus, that the author of the gospel of John turned this “non-resurrection” of the rich man completely on its head.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke, followed by the resurrection of a “real” Lazarus in John’s gospel give us one of many looks on the gradual deification of the Jesus character between the 70’s and 150’s AD. The gospels according to Mark and Matthew know nothing about this Lazarus, whether as a “real actor” or a fictional character within the teachings of their protagonist Jesus. Along comes Luke, who either had a different source to base this parable on or completely invented it to make whatever point he wanted with it. Finally, the author of the gospel according to John read this passage in Luke and like myself, realized just how problematic it was. As he obviously emphasized the crux of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, he would not suffer Jesus calling his own resurrection pointless or futile. But he might have found the idea of a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection useful for his narrative and therefore decided to recycle this parable and turn it into an actual event. And useful it was, at least in "John’s" dramatic plot, for the resurrection of Lazarus would serve as one of the reasons why the priests of the Temple wanted to get rid of Jesus by any means possible, leading to his death and own resurrection. From a purely literary perspective, it is a beautiful example of the classical trope we find in other famous dramas: a prophecy leads the actors to their attempts to prevent it from materializing but thus create the exact conditions that enable the fulfilment of the prophecy.
This leads us to ask whether anything we find in the gospels actually happened or not. The debate has been going on for almost 2,000 years now and seems far from settled. It is not unreasonable to state that some of it is historical and some of it fictional. That leads to further inquiry: how much of it is fictional or historical, and what did Jesus really say and what was invented, imaginary or “creative license”? The same applies to this very passage in Luke.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus gives us a look at what Jesus possibly tried to achieve with his ministry: observance of and obedience to Mosaic Law. According to Jesus, this is what brings reward in the afterlife. If you are not willing to live your life accordingly, then no bodily resurrection of a family member will convince you of the need to do so. At least in this regard, history would prove Jesus right. His bodily resurrection (whether real or merely the belief in it) caused the very thing Jesus was combatting. There are now 400 times more people who explicitly reject Jesus’ own religion than there are Jews who possibly observe Mosaic Law (*) The irony of it all could not be greater. If Jesus knew how his legacy would turn half of humanity away from his instructions, he would turn over in his grave and weep over the utter failure of his ministry.
David, aPHD, 22 November 2021
(*) Conrad Hackett, David McClendon, "Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe", April 5, 2017 Pew Research Center, research topics > religion > religions > Christianity https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/
Image retrieved from: Noah Berlatsky, "Why zombies are so hilarious", December 5, 2018, the Verge, https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/5/18125856/why-zombies-are-hilarious-anna-and-apocalypse-santa-clarita-diet-shaun-dead-george-romero