This post, by author Anjali Sivan, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, was originally featured on her personal weblog on the occasion of St. Thomas Sunday.
In honor of St. Thomas Sunday, I would like to share my own special appreciation for him. There is the fact that he was the apostle who brought the Gospel to India. But even more than that, it was his doubting of the bodily resurrection of Christ that enabled me to leave the Bahá’í Faith and become a Christian.
First, I think it should be pointed out that all of the remaining 11 apostles seem to have doubted the bodily resurrection until they encountered Christ themselves. St. Thomas was not alone in doubting…but the way in which he framed his doubts, expressing the need to place his hands into Christ’s wounds before believing in His bodily resurrection, laid one more brick of evidence that the Gospels truly do tell the story of Christ’s bodily resurrection.
You might ask how anyone could question this – isn’t it obvious that the Gospels tell the story of Christ’s resurrection, whether we choose to believe in it or not? In fact, we usually can refer to Christ’s resurrection without having to spell out that it refers to a bodily resurrection, and not some other form of resurrection. Even when I was a Hindu growing up, with very little knowledge of the Christian faith, I knew that Christ was said to have risen from the dead – in His body. I really had no idea why that was relevant, so I didn’t consider it further – but that’s a topic for a different post.
The first time my attention was really focused on the resurrection was when I was Bahá’í. (I was born and raised Hindu, then was Bahá’í for 5 years before coming to Christ – yes, it has been an eye-opening journey!) The Bahá’í Faith teaches that the resurrection of Christ was spiritual. The founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh (born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí) is referred to as a Manifestation of God – somewhat different from the concept of a prophet. He taught that while Christ’s body was crucified, His spirit could not be. And as Bahá’u’lláh’s son `Abdu’l-Bahá (who has authority to interpret Baha’u’llah’s writings) further expounds, the resurrection of Christ was one of the spirit, not of matter. The following is from a compilation of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings called Some Answered Questions (pp. 103-105):
Question: What is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection after three days?
Answer: The resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. All Their states, Their conditions, Their acts, the things They have established, Their teachings, Their expressions, Their parables and Their instructions have a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material things. For example, there is the subject of Christ’s coming from heaven: it is clearly stated in many places in the Gospel that the Son of man came from heaven, He is in heaven, and He will go to heaven. So in chapter 6, verse 38, of the Gospel of John it is written: “For I came down from heaven”; and also in verse 42 we find: “And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” Also in John, chapter 3, verse 13: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
Observe that it is said, “The Son of man is in heaven,” while at that time Christ was on earth. Notice also that it is said that Christ came from heaven, though He came from the womb of Mary, and His body was born of Mary. It is clear, then, that when it is said that the Son of man is come from heaven, this has not an outward but an inward signification; it is a spiritual, not a material, fact. The meaning is that though, apparently, Christ was born from 104 the womb of Mary, in reality He came from heaven, from the center of the Sun of Reality, from the Divine World, and the Spiritual Kingdom. And as it has become evident that Christ came from the spiritual heaven of the Divine Kingdom, therefore, His disappearance under the earth for three days has an inner signification and is not an outward fact. In the same way, His resurrection from the interior of the earth is also symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material; and likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not material ascension.
Beside these explanations, it has been established and proved by science that the visible heaven is a limitless area, void and empty, where innumerable stars and planets revolve.
Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His perfections and His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His martyrdom, and was not resplendent and manifest. No, rather it was lost, for the believers were few in number and were troubled and agitated. The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared; His religion found life; His teachings and His admonitions became evident and visible. In other words, the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and the bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it.
Such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended 105 the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it.
Thus, the resurrection of Christ here refers to the spiritual resurrection of the Cause of Christ among His flagging followers. Moreover, the actual strengthening of the disciples’ spirits is attributed not to the risen Christ, but to Mary Magdalene:
After the Lord Christ suffered, the disciples wept, and gave way to their grief. They thought that their hopes were shattered, and that the Cause was utterly lost, till Mary Magdalene came to them and strengthened them saying: ‘Do you mourn the body of Our Lord or His Spirit? If you mourn His Spirit, you are mistaken, for Jesus lives! His Spirit will never leave us!’ Thus through her wisdom and encouragement the Cause of Christ was upheld for all the days to come. Her intuition enabled her to grasp the spiritual fact.
`Abdu’l-Bahá (`Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 104) *This quote attributed to Mary Magdalene is not found anywhere in the Bible.
As I had never really understood the point of the bodily resurrection anyway, this was fairly easy for me to accept. Furthermore, as a Bahá’í, I believed that Bahá’u’lláh was the return of Christ Himself, so of course I would believe the Bahá’í interpretation of this event and of any other scriptural concept. I have heard some Baha’is indicate vaguely that one doesn’t necessarily have to give up a belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ in order to be Bahá’í – but that simply indicates an unfamiliarity with the actual significance of the resurrection as well as with the Bahá’í writings themselves.
It is interesting to note that the Bahá’í Faith not only differs from Christianity on this subject matter, but also from Islam. The prophet Mohammed taught that Christ was not actually crucified, and therefore it would follow, was not resurrected. Rather, He was taken up into heaven before suffering an earthly death. Baha’u’lláh attempts to partially reconcile this apparent difference in belief by explaining that Mohammed was talking about Christ’s spirit – that Christ’s body may have been crucified, but His spirit could not be.
Bahá’ís basically believe that the different world religions are actually one – that they are just different chapters in one book of God’s revelation to man. There are basically only two reasons that religions appear to differ on these types of spiritual topics: a) fullness of truth is revealed progressively, depending on the abilities of each society to understand and accept it; and b) as time goes by, the actual truths taught in these religions can slowly deteriorate, being warped and corrupted by inaccurate transmission, destruction of authentic texts, etc. Bahá’ís believe that the only things that can truly change between religious revelations are those laws that govern social or practical customs and outward matters. These are meted out by God through His Manifestations depending on the social and outward circumstances and needs of humanity at that particular time.
Bahá’ís believe that spiritual truth itself is unchanging, but it is revealed in varying amounts of fullness depending on the time, circumstances, and spiritual preparedness of the people to whom it is being revealed. Humanity is thought to be spiritually evolving over time. Therefore, the reason that God sends down a new Manifestation bearing the next chapter in His progressive revelation is to a) as a wise Divine Physician, address the new issues and circumstances facing mankind so that they can be approach life in a healthy and beneficial way; and b) to give a greater measure of the fullness of spiritual truth that they can appropriately understand and handle at that stage. All of the Manifestations of God are believed to be one in essence. Bahá’u’lláh, therefore, is believed to be one in essence with Christ and to fulfill the Return of Christ, restoring truth and revealing a greater measure of it. In such a light, the Bahá’í teachings on the resurrection would be considered to be a restoration of the truth.
Based on these beliefs, it was quite natural for me to assume that Christians had simply either received a warped version of Biblical events and their meanings as time went by, or that they had not been spiritually ready to understand the spiritual nature of what the resurrection truly was. By mistaking symbol for reality, they had been led into superstition concerning this matter, but it was more or less a harmless mistake – what was important was that Christians had understood the virtues that Christ had preached. The true Gospel message was in those virtues. The Bahá’í Faith was here to correct the errors and expand upon the truths, to reveal a fuller measure of truth that was free of these imperfections.
One of the greatest and most important spiritual works that a Bahá’í can engage in is teaching the Bahá’í Faith to others. What has been explained above about correcting errors and expanding truths in Christianity also applied to the other major world religions. The Bahá’í Faith was a benevolent force for not only leading everyone to the fullness of truth, but in that truth, uniting them into one, harmonious whole: “One God, One Religion, One Human Race”. This was God’s will and purpose and would be a great benefit to humanity, which was currently suffering under so much needless division and strife!
Becoming an effective Bahá’í teacher required not only a solid understanding the Bahá’í Faith, but also an understanding of other religions and their scriptures, so as to point out the similarities and reconcile the differences through the corrective lens of Bahá’í beliefs and interpretations. As mentioned before, Bahá’ís believe that scripture and interpretation can be corrupted gradually over time. However, we can sometimes discern truths remaining within world scriptures when we read them through a Bahá’í lens. The Bahá’í claim was that, in fact, if you understood the world’s religions and scriptures properly (i.e. through a Bahá’í lens), you would see within them the proof that they are all one and point towards Bahá’u’lláh as a long-awaited prophet/savior type figure – that Bahá’u’lláh was the fulfillment of this promise to all the world’s different religions and that the Bahá’í Faith was the fullness of the truth that everyone else had been grasping at! All of the various religions had always been pointing towards the figure of Bahá’u’lláh.
While I was growing up as a Hindu, I had always been interested in learning about other world religions, and I enjoyed searching for similarities between them in their teachings, writings, and mythologies – celebrating these shared elements as evidence of humanity’s glimpses of God, regardless of religion. (Curiously though, I had no interest whatsoever in studying Christianity or Judaism. But that, again, is for a different post.) I wasn’t bothered about the differences I saw in these religions, easily dismissing them based on the analogy that when searching for God, we are all like blind men who felt an elephant in the dark, and came away with differing opinions about what God was like, based on their own limited experiences and perspectives. The Bahá’ís, however, proposed something that I had never previously considered possible – the ability to actually reveal the entire elephant itself! The idea that I could engage in a serious study of world religions, through the lens of Bahá’í understanding and interpretation, to uncover how exactly the religions related to one another and could be logically reconciled despite their apparent differences was very, very exciting!
Motivated by my natural interest as well as a sincere and burning desire to become the best Bahá’í teacher that I could be, I set out to begin studying the world religions more closely through a Bahá’í lens. This was what brought my attention to Christianity and the Bible in a more serious way. Whereas in the case of certain religions nearly all of the true writings are said to have been lost or warped (e.g. Buddhism), in the case of Christianity Bahá’ís believe that there is enough truth in the Bible for its words to be searched for evidence of God’s revelation – it is the interpretation that has been corrupted more so than the scripture. Therefore, Bahá’ís do read and rely upon the Bible when seeking to understand and find common ground with Christians so as to explain how the Bible itself actually supports Bahá’í beliefs. The Bible offers fertile ground for Bahá’í interpretation, as there is a mix of the symbolic and the literal, in addition to many parables.
I was once listening to a Bahá’í speak about how to reach and teach Christians. He explained that one of the common stumbling blocks for Christians when looking into the Bahá’í Faith was the Bahá’í teaching on a spiritual resurrection rather than a bodily resurrection. Baha’is often point to various verses that indicate that some parts of the New Testament were literal, but some were symbolic, and some consisted of parables – and that Christ spoke in symbolic parables to the masses but only explained the underlying spiritual messages to His chosen disciples who were able to truly understand. From this it could be understood that the spiritual meaning was deemed higher and more important. Verses were chosen to show that Christ rebuked some people for seeking miracles – and this was used to explain that Christ felt that joy, love, and belief in His teachings were what was important to those who are truly spiritually oriented, and the seeking of miracles was spiritually inferior, even worthy of rebuke. Words of St. Paul were used to explain that the resurrection was of a spiritual body, not physical – and that those who believed in a physical resurrection were greatly mistaken and spiritually inferior in their understanding. Christ conveyed His most important teachings in parables, and the story of the resurrection was similar to a parable – it was symbolic, and the true meaning was spiritual rather than literal. If we wanted to seek after real spiritual truth like the chosen disciples and not seek after miracles like the spiritually blind masses, then we would do best to understand the story spiritually rather than literally.
Thus the Bible itself was used by Bahá’ís to dispute the resurrection, and thereby the Christian Gospel message itself – our salvation through faith in Christ, God incarnate who died and rose from the dead. I did not really know or understand the Christian Gospel, the point of the resurrection, or its significance to me, my life, or my afterlife, so I didn’t know that this was the Gospel that was being denied. The Bahá’í version of the Gospel, the version I had grown familiar with, had nothing to do with the incarnation of God or His resurrection – their understanding of what Christ was, as a Manifestation of God, was lesser than the Christian Gospel of Christ as very God incarnate, and their version of the resurrection as being only spiritual was lesser than the idea of a bodily resurrection.
However, the Bahá’ís truly believed their own interpretations were spiritually superior to the Christian version – because the Bahá’ís themselves did not understand the significance of the Christian Gospel and what it truly meant. Their version of the Gospel was not about God’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, but was rather limited to developing the spiritual virtues taught by Christ. Without understanding the true meaning of the Christian Gospel, it was quite natural and easy to simply adopt the Bahá’í version of the Gospel instead.
Besides, it all seemed like good stuff, logical interpretations! Whereas in the Bahá’í Faith `Abdu’l-Bahá had sole authority to give official interpretations of Bahá’í scripture, I was not aware of an equivalent Christian authority. So while I was very careful about seeking out the official interpretations of Bahá’í scripture, when it came to Christian scripture, I assumed it was perfectly fair to look at any interpretations that could be made and believe what made the most sense to me and was in keeping with the Bahá’í Faith. After all, this was why the Christians themselves seemed so divided and confused about scriptural interpretation – they lacked such an authority! Bahá’ís were blessed that `Abdu’l-Bahá had written interpretations for various Christian topics that they could trust and explain to the Christians.
Then this Bahá’í speaker said something that played a very important role in my later conversion to Christianity. He pointed to the story of St. Thomas, “Doubting Thomas”, and the true nature of his doubt. The reason that he focused on this story was because it seemed like one of the most concrete examples of a physical resurrection. He refuted it by pointing out that after Christ said to St. Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving but believing,” the Bible doesn’t actually state that Thomas then put his hands in His wounds! Instead, Thomas simply says, “My Lord and my God!” I do not remember the speaker saying anything further, but the lesson was implicit – as the Bible didn’t state that Thomas actually touched Christ, we couldn’t know that Christ was actually present in bodily form from this story.
Never mind that after the resurrection Christ broke bread and ate fish with His disciples– He also appeared and disappeared, and was unrecognizable at times, so the physical body must have been an illusion, it was just His spirit. Never mind that He specifically claimed to not be a ghost – of course, He wasn’t a ghost or a ghoul haunting the earth – He was a spiritually risen soul, which could be different, right? That’s what that meant! Basically, never mind all of those varied illustrations seeming to plainly convey a bodily resurrection in the Bible. After all, they may have just been corrupted sections of the Bible, right? And even if they weren’t corrupted, the Bible is full of parables and symbolic stories, isn’t it? Never mind that the parables in the Gospels are clearly stated as such, then given plain spiritual explanations afterwards – whereas the resurrection accounts are written as plain historical fact, in the same literal style as the non-parable portions of the Gospels. Ah – but how can we know what is really parable and what is not? Who are we to claim we are wise enough to tell?
Therefore, let us never mind the fact that this interpretation of what went on between St. Thomas and Jesus Christ leads to two possible conclusions that no logical person would ever draw from looking at the story as a whole: a) that Christ appeared life-like and solid to St. Thomas because that’s what he required in order to believe, but that if Thomas had really tried to touch Him, he would have found that Christ has just been tricking him with an illusion; or b) that Christ’s words to St. Thomas were sarcastic, and that St. Thomas was exclaiming not out of amazement at the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, and not out of contrition for his prior unbelief in it – but rather in realizing how wrong he had been to demand proof of a bodily resurrection, and out of contrition that he had not expected and accepted the idea of a spiritual one instead. And somehow the earliest Christians had completely mistaken the words “Do not be unbelieving but believing,” for the opposite, incorrect meaning.
At the time, I accepted this explanation – it seemed like a remarkably clever response to give Christians about this difficult verse, bravo! And because it was clever, I thought, it must be true. And it supported the Bahá’í teachings on the resurrection. And explained the little tiny places that Christians seem to have failed to read between the lines to see what was really going on. It showed how the Christians had gotten off to the wrong direction in terms of their beliefs about the nature of Christ’s resurrection.
However, it failed to explain away what the resurrection accounts as a whole seemed to be trying to convey – an actual bodily resurrection. The story of St. Thomas doubting was just the most blatantly clear example of this that caught my attention, and the slyness of the attempt to explain it away made me uneasy – there was something slippery and in its approach. And after all, it wasn’t just one esoteric verse that was being explained away – it was an important concept that seemed to be the most obvious one being expressed – very intentionally, and plainly, in multiple places and in multiple ways.
Examples of further confusions:
- If `Abdu’l-Bahá taught that the resurrection of Christ really referred to the Cause of Christ being resurrected among the disciples…then why were Bahá’ís discussing spiritual bodies to begin with? Let me back up. Bahá’ís would point to St. Paul’s rebuking of Christians who asked how a body could be resurrected, when Paul explained that it would be a spiritual body raised on the Day of Judgement (1 Corinthians 15:1-54); thus Bahá’ís would argue that the resurrection is not of a material body at all. However, Bahá’ís don’t even believe in the Day of Judgement as a day when bodies of any type, spiritual or physical, will be literally raised – they believe the Day of Judgement began with the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh, the new Manifestation, and centers on who will accept him and who will reject him. Rather than the resurrection of spiritual bodies, they believe resurrection refers to people shedding ignorance for enlightenment. Then why would they point to St. Paul’s argument of spiritual bodies at all?
- And how could they interpret St. Paul’s words about an earthly corruptible body being raised as an incorruptible spiritual body as not being literal – when earlier in the same book St. Paul refers to Christ’s own resurrection in terms of His actual appearance to His disciples?
- Indeed, when St. Paul refers to Christ’s appearance to his disciples and to hundreds of others, and then also to himself, how can Bahá’ís refer to St Paul at all in order to deny the bodily resurrection? Were all of these appearances of Christ, repeated by St. Paul, supposed to be symbolic?
- And if so, why was he emphasizing them as being “of first importance”? If the true underlying meaning of the resurrection was the resurrection of the Cause of Christ, wouldn’t it have been much clearer for St. Paul to explain it as such to the people rather than referring to it as a bodily resurrection? Why wouldn’t he have just explained it the way that `Abdu’l-Bahá said Mary Magdalene had?
- Or was St. Paul misled about all of this? If so, then why would the Bahá’ís try to prove anything based on his (false) writings? And why wouldn’t the other disciples, including Mary Magdalene herself, have corrected him?
- And if it really were simply the Cause of Christ that was resurrected among the disciples, and if it really were Mary Magdalene who was responsible for it rather than the appearance of the risen Christ, then what was the point of any of the “symbolic stories” of Christ visiting the disciples at all? Wouldn’t they all be pointless or false? Then why try to point to any of them, including the story of “Doubting Thomas”, as evidence of anything?
In light of all of the above…what were Bahá’ís really doing with the Bible?
It seems to me now that the Bahá’ís were basically lost in their own convoluted arguments, and losing others in the same…all for the sake of denying the bodily resurrection, because it was in “contradiction to science”. Thus they pointed to St. Paul’s own words about a spiritual resurrection as proof against believing in a bodily resurrection, completely missing (or ignoring) St. Paul’s true, emphatic, message:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:1-19)
What could be clearer in meaning than that? Unless, of course, you don’t really understand the significance of the Christian Gospel message and the Resurrection to begin with. In which case you might create all manner of other interpretations to try to understand or explain it according to earthly, human standards. That is what is so ironic about Bahá’ís taking the stance that their interpretation is more spiritual, when they drag all of this down to a very materialistic level by explaining the supernatural aspects away as symbolic, by refusing to believe in a resurrection that contradicts science. They claim that the rebuke of St. Paul is towards those who believe in a bodily resurrection, and yet the rebuke of St. Paul would be against the disbelief of the Bahá’ís:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:35-54)
If the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable, then what of those who cannot even believe in the imperishable? What of those who cannot even conceive of death itself being conquered? Those were the people that St. Paul rebuked as fools – those who lacked faith in these things because they were so contrary to observable nature. The fact is, these people referred to by St. Paul in ancient times were no different from the Bahá’ís of today in their skepticism of a bodily resurrection. This refutes the Baha’iBahá’í idea that ancient peoples required more miracles and superstitious/unscientific beliefs like bodily resurrection because they were less “advanced” than our own society. On the contrary, most ancient people rejected or struggled to accept the idea of bodily resurrection, even some of the Jews (the Sadducees). As for the bodily resurrection of Christ, even the apostles struggled with it until they actually met the risen Lord!
Using scriptural references is not enough, in any case. Heretics have often sought to prove their points from the Bible itself. The Arian heresy is an early example of this. Furthermore, to deny bodily resurrection based on scripture requires so much tearing apart, picking and choosing sections, stabbing from different angles, rearranging, and relabeling, that it was like dissecting and dismembering a frog so brutally and spreading it out so widely that the poor thing no longer resembles a frog, then pointing to the different parts and explaining to confused viewers how this couldn’t all possibly come together to form a whole frog as previously thought. It’s not enough to claim that an interpretation is “based on scripture”. Any serious Christian knows that it is possible to pick and choose various verses to support different conclusions. The major heresies have often been based on such “scriptural support”; the conflict was over the interpretation of such verses and scripture as a whole. The heretics did not argue that the Bible was inaccurate or false – they sought to prove their points from the Bible itself.
The key is in knowing how the Bible is to be interpreted. As I mentioned earlier, Bahá’ís fail to see anyone vested with such authority over Christian scripture, therefore they see no problem with reinterpreting it – in fact, they see a need for creating the proper interpretation, believing any true interpretation to have been lost and in need of being restored. Where the true authority for Biblical interpretation actually lies will be the subject of a different post.
Eventually, I realized that accepting the Bahá’í denial of the bodily resurrection – in the name of staying rational rather than believing in something so irrational – actually required me to forgo what the rational reading of the accounts would be: a clear intention to convey the event of a bodily resurrection. Furthermore, it required me to acknowledge a glaring exception to the Bahá’í teaching that the revelations of the Manifestations were preserved for a time before being corrupted. The corruption of beliefs is something that Bahá’ís believe happens gradually as time goes on – which can seem like a logical assumption. It follows, then that there is a time during which that revelation is kept uncorrupted – otherwise, how would it benefit the people at all? What would be the point of the revelation? Why would God send a Manifestation to suffer and die on the cross, only to have the revelation corrupted immediately?
The idea that the bodily resurrection was a later corruption of the Gospel is not supported by historical evidence, which shows that the earliest Christians did indeed believe in and emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ as central to the Gospel. Even modern day scholars who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ still admit that the earliest followers did. The idea that the resurrection is an unnecessary superstition may be held by some modern day Christians (and Bahá’ís), but certainly not by the ancient church. Thus the corruption of the Gospel – if it happened at all, as the Bahá’ís claim – would have had to have been immediate rather than gradual. Even St. Paul would have been affected, as he confidently refers to the multitudes who claimed to have witnessed the risen Christ. And as explored above, St. Paul himself emphasizes bodily resurrection, in scripture verses to which the Bahá’ís themselves refer.
To Bahá’ís, a superstitious early belief in the resurrection may seem trivial since they do not understand the true Gospel message – but to Christians, particularly the earliest Christians, this is at the core of the Gospel. How weak would be the power of God, and of Christ’s revelation, and the faith and influence of His apostles, if the message were immediately corrupted like this – even while they were alive? As St. Paul points out, the living eyewitnesses were present to vouch for it – and wouldn’t this same community of eyewitnesses and disciples serve as a mode of correction for any major errors being introduced to the Gospel?
While some modern day skeptics like to compare oral tradition to a game of telephone among children that leads immediately to mistakes, studies have shown that oral tradition could be preserved quite accurately among communities that have an interest in preserving it. It was not a whispered game of telephone among kids seeking a laugh – this was a painstaking and deliberate effort to preserve holy revelations! To ancient people, religion was not a weekend hobby, it was central to livelihood. Religious revelations, instructions for rituals, prayers, even histories, poetry, and lengthy epics, were preserved orally. We unconsciously benefit from these efforts when we enjoy ancient classics today.
I myself come from a Hindu background, and so I think of the vast “tracts” of Hindu oral traditions that were memorized, recited, and preserved for hundreds upon hundreds of years before being written down. The human mind can be trained to memorize far more than modern people realize or experience, as we now have the convenience of recording things. In fact, one study was undertaken to analyze segments of Hindu chants that could not be written – they are not words as such that modern day Indians can understand, and cannot be captured by letters. They have been preserved because all parts of the chanting are considered holy, and therefore they have been faithfully preserved and passed down for thousands of years. What the researchers found was shocking – the only close analog that they could find resembling the patterns of these sections of chanting was bird song! The conclusion was that these verses were far, far older than Sanskrit!
If Hindus could preserve exact sounds for thousands of years, couldn’t Christians manage a basic story for a few decades? How weak would be the power of a God, of Christ, of His revelation, of the Holy Spirit, of the faith and capability of His apostles – if this immediate corruption of the Gospel were to be believed? Or rather, how weak is the faith of the person who posits that God, Christ, His revelation, the Holy Spirit, and the faith and capability of His apostles and the Church that He established, could so easily and quickly be corrupted? Not only is our God is not a weak God, or a cruel God, that would abandon His flock as open prey for spiritual wolves so that they would live out their lives deluded for centuries upon centuries, but the faith and capability of His flock were extraordinary in their willingness to suffer and die for this Gospel. Are we to believe that people who were willing to suffer and die to preserve the Gospel would have allowed for its corruption?
Bahá’ís speak of a great spiritual power that was unleashed through Christ’s crucifixion and death – how weak would that power prove to be if the Gospel were immediately corrupted among His flock? Bahá’ís emphasize the importance of conducting an independent investigation of truth; but in this case, accepting the Bahá’í version of events would require me to ignore what my own investigation of Christian scripture and history had revealed. It also would require me to ignore contradictions within the Bahá’í teachings themselves.
One afternoon I picked up a Bahá’í book seeking to explain the Bible, opened to a random page, and the first verse my eyes fell upon was 2 Timothy 4:3-4:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
At that moment a sudden and unexpected realization sliced through me like a knife: the Bahá’ís were using this verse to describe the corruption of the Gospel message among Christians, when in reality this was what the Bahá’ís were doing with the Gospel!! It was over.
The next day I sent a letter to Bahá’í administrative bodies and friends explaining my resignation from “the Faith”. Once my eyes were opened by the grace of God, I saw problems with many other Bahá’í teachings, such as progressive revelation, the evolutionary character of humanity and society, the unity of all religions, the oneness of their “Manifestations”, Bahá’í teachings about other aspects of Christianity and world religions, the supposedly exalted uniqueness of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation, and the flowery emptiness of the Bahá’í writings themselves. It was like an entire house of cards had fallen. The Kingdom of God promised by Bahá’u’lláh was an illusion of smoke and mirrors that came crashing down.
When I went back to the Bible and read it, not with “cleverness” but with humility, and with the sincere intention of understanding what was being conveyed by the straightforward and simple people who wrote it – I could see it even more clearly. The Gospels do describe the bodily resurrection of Christ. If you are trying to use the Bible itself to prove that it was never intended to describe a bodily resurrection of Christ….it will take a lot of blindfolded mental gymnastics to get there. Being clever is one thing – but when pushed to an extreme, this “cleverness” actually becomes deceptive in seeking to explain away what was plainly intended. After all, the very first deception occurred in the Garden of Eden: “Hath God said…?”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Bahá’ís would have you believe that Christ here is gently rebuking St. Thomas for needing to see a physical resurrection in order to have faith in Christ, whereas those who do not require a physical resurrection to have faith in Christ are blessed. Not so! What Christ is saying is that while St. Thomas required the direct seeing (and touching) of His risen body in order to believe in the bodily resurrection, blessed are those who do not have to see or touch in order to believe in the risen body!
When the centurion sought the miraculous healing of his servant and said that Christ did not even have to come in order for him to witness it firsthand, Christ praised him, declaring, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10) He did not criticize him for an “imperfect faith” causing him to seek a miracle – Christ praised his great faith – for believing in the miracle without having to even witness Him performing it in person. Thus, faith is associated directly with believing in the miracles.
On the occasions where Christ rebuked certain people for seeking miracles, Bahá’ís also interpret this to mean that we should not need to believe in miracles in order to have faith. Wrong! Christ performed miracles willingly and even unbidden at times in the Gospels. He even used miracles as a witness to Who He really was (Matthew 11:2-6). On many occasions when a person was granted a miraculous healing, Christ told them, “Your faith has made you well.” Thus we see again that faith is associated directly with believing in Christ’s miracles.
Christ praises those who believe in His miracles, and does not rebuke them for seeking His miracles out of belief; what He rebuked was the need to see the miracles in order to believe in them, and to believe that He was the author of them. He rebuked certain people who ask for miracles because although they had heard of His miracles, they lacked faith that He could perform the miracles unless if they witnessed the miracles themselves. They approached Him with skepticism and unbelief rather than with hope and faith. Whereas Christ willingly performed miracles of healing and feeding for those who were truly in need, these others, this “wicked and adulterous generation”, simply demanded a sign from Heaven in order to test Christ (Matthew 16:1-4). Christ refused miracles to others, like King Herod, because they did not care about Who He was, they only wanted entertainment. Christ knew what the true intention in each person’s heart was and responded accordingly.
Though many refer to St. Thomas as “Doubting Thomas”, he has also been known as “Believing Thomas”, for his shift from disbelief to belief. And because he believed after actually seeing, we, by believing in his belief, are blessed to believe without seeing. Even those who shy away from believing in the bodily resurrection as a historical fact can at least believe that it was indeed a bodily resurrection that was being described by the Gospels and believed in by the earliest Christians.
For those of us who believe – or who want to believe, or who are at least curious, fine: the Gospel proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” But so what? What does that mean? Why should anyone care? What does that have to do with us? If the Gospel message is so simple, how can it be so misunderstood? That will be the subject of another post.