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Paul Writing His Epistles, painting probably by Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century

The Resurrection Series: What Paul Experienced

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By Corbin Croy

Without Paul there would not be a Christianity today. It would have simply been a Palestinian cult that ended at the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul enabled Christianity to move past its Jewish roots and refashioned it into a religion for the Gentiles. And he is still breaking ground. In our modern world, Paul is the only connection into Christianity’s origins. Most do not take this seriously enough. They want to cling to the Gospel accounts as historical books and think that everything Jesus did in those books are what happened as historical events. But the reality is that only Paul gives us first hand accounts of many of the things Christians have come to believe in, in terms of their early development, but the problem is that when we look to what Paul actually has to say it looks drastically different than what most Christians believe today about what happened.

Of the list in 1 Corinthians 15 of those to whom Jesus appeared we only have Paul’s testimony to back it up. Paul describes his “vision” or “appearance” in Galatians, alludes to it in 2 Corinthians, and it is narrated in Acts 9, 22 and 26. We will look at these accounts to see what exactly happened to Paul, and from this derive a baseline for what a post-mortem appearance looked like. It is important to note that Paul did consider his resurrection appearance as “abnormal,” but this is only because of his previous character and not because of the experience itself that he had. He was abnormally born because he persecuted the church, not because Christ appeared to him differently than all the others. This was Paul’s understanding at that time.

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. – Galatians 1:11-24

The only description we have from this passage of what Paul’s “revelation from Jesus Christ” is that God revealed the son *in* him. This is a rather odd way to describe what is such an important event. Later, Paul has no problem calling this “revelation” an actual post-mortem appearance, but in this early manifestation of what Paul considers to be his election this revelation is almost equated with an inner enlightenment of God’s work in our life. Admittedly, there is no reason to think that these are equivocal descriptions. I would think that a “revelation by Jesus Christ” is different than God “revealing the son in a person” on a prima facie basis, but they are not mutually exclusive, which is important to note.

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. – 2 Corinthians 12:1-7

It could be debated whether or not Paul is speaking of himself. The text suggests that he is speaking of another person, but as literary critics will tell you the text often is the greatest inhibitor in understanding what a person means. I think Paul is speaking ironically, meaning that this “other person” is really himself, for a few reasons. The first is that Paul is not trying to draw too much attention to his “revelation” experience. The second is that Paul is trying to teach about something else which requires knowledge of great reasons to be proud. And the third is that Paul believed that a confession of his revelation would distract his readers from his teaching on humility and weakness.

If this can be applied to Paul then there are some very interesting details which are of note. The first is that Paul, himself, seems to have no knowledge as to whether or not his “vision” was in the body or out of it. Thus, Paul seems comfortable with the notion that his revelation from Christ could have been entirely in his own mind. This possibility does not cause him to doubt in the slightest his belief in the resurrection. For Paul, the fact that his revelation from Jesus Christ could have been an out of body experience where God reveals the Son in him is not a deterrent to thinking that he actually had a post-mortem experience of the resurrected Jesus.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. – Acts 9:3-15

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ” ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ” ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. ” ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ” ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. “Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. – Acts 22:6-14

About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ” ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. – Acts 26:13-19

These are the three accounts we find in Acts which narrate Paul’s “vision from heaven” which is how Acts describes it! This story contains many inconsistencies, but not contradictions. We could construct a narrative where these inconsistencies align with one another, but this would be unfair to the text itself. As it stands, we have no reason in and of itself to assume that this event happened exactly as it is described. Were there men who were with Paul that heard a voice, or did they? Did Paul consult someone after his vision, or not? Did Paul hear from Jesus his appointment, or from another?

There is no account of Paul seeing the physical body of Jesus. There is no account which describes this appearance as anything other then a vision from heaven. And yet this is considered a post-mortem appearance of the resurrected Christ. In fact, this is the only reliable post-mortem appearance that we can actually use in a historical sense. If this is our baseline then what does that say for which model is most likely the one used during the time that the Bible was being written?

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