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A New Explanation of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Result of Mourning

Jesus’ tomb—if indeed his body was placed in one—was not found empty for the simple reason that his corpse was not resuscitated and he did not return to life. The biblical texts that tell a different story are later interpretations of the resurrection faith, for in fact, Jesus’ body decayed or was eaten by vultures, as was the case with most crucified persons. Easter began with a visionary experience that happened to Peter. Therefore, a psychological interpretation—one that explains this vision of Jesus as the result of guilt and grief—permits us to arrive at a more reasonable understanding of the rise of resurrection faith.

By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
April 2012

To better visualize how Peter might deny Jesus and later see him alive in heavenly glory, we should try to imagine what must in all likelihood have been in his mind between Good Friday and Easter. I shall attempt to trace this process, analyzing it with the help of contemporary psychological research in order to understand the origin of the Easter story.

The validity of psychological questions and the need to ask them must be stressed. We might, for example, apply an exclusively historical and source-critical methodology to the study of Primitive Christianity as a whole or any of the communities of which it was comprised—or for that matter of a modern religious group like the Mormons. But if we did so, we would be inadvertently or purposefully avoiding the important issue of personal dynamics, thus failing to deal with the riddles often posed by both the founders of these groups and the adherents who find meaning and personal direction in them. It is not enough to study the reports from and about these groups and individuals. The faith of the first Christians naturally derived in part from emotions, assumptions, and goals that as fellow humans we can at least begin to identify and understand. And surely a historical study of the resurrection of Jesus or a belief on the part of individual Christians that they “saw” Jesus after his death has to be supplemented by the enhanced understanding of the human mind and personality that modern psychology has afforded us. Such an application of new knowledge would be no more than an entirely consistent attempt to extend and deepen the process of historical investigation by pursuing it into the subconscious sources of perception and motivation within people’s lives.

With the dramatic events of Good Friday following close upon his denial of Jesus, Peter’s world had collapsed. Then, despite the tragic and emotionally wrenching events of the crucifixion, the “Easter event” occurs: Jesus speaks once again to a shattered and mourning Peter. As a consequence, Peter suddenly “saw” Jesus in a totally new light.

To recognize Peter’s situation as one of mourning, one need only peruse reports by other mourners, not a few of whom attest to the visionary reappearances of beloved persons who have died. Yorick Spiegel1 cites several cases:

The grief sufferer hears the steps of the deceased on the stairway, hears the sand crunch in front of the house and believes that the door is open. “I saw Kay standing just inside the front door, looking as he always had coming home from work. He smiled and I ran into his outstretched arms as I always had and leaned against his chest. I opened my eyes, the image was gone.” A mother who has lost a baby may hear it cry while she is half asleep and rush to his bed before realizing that all of this was only a desire.2

Children who have lost their father or mother very often tell in illustrative ways how their parents sit at the edge of the bed and talk to them. Almost half the patients Parkes3 examined told about similar visual disturbances. Often shadows are perceived as visions of the deceased.4

Not infrequent are auditory hallucinations; a creak at night or a sound at the door is interpreted as the husband moving about the house or coming home. One patient of Parkes’s reported that while sitting in a chair, she has the feeling the deceased caresses her hair and whispers that she should rest. In another study, widows reported that they hear their husband cough or call out at night.5

Besides visual and auditory hallucinations, the feeling that the dead person is present is an even more common phenomenon. Some of the widows told Parkes: “I still have the feeling that he is near and there is something I ought to be doing for him or telling him ... He is with me all the time, I hear him and see him, although I know it’s only imagination”; “When I am washing my hair, I have the feeling he is there to protect me in case someone comes in through the door.” For some, the presence of the dead is particularly strong at his grave.6

To the category of breakdown of reality testing to prevent the loss belongs the dreams about the deceased. ... Widows are by far the most regular dreamers about the lost persons compared to the rest in the interviewed group of the bereaved. ... In the dream of the mourner, a remarkable compromise is made between the desire that the deceased be alive again and the acceptance of the reality that he is lost. For the psychoanalytically trained, the bereaved’s dreams are important information about the process of grief.7

Also entirely apposite is a report that was submitted to the journal Swiss Observer (Schweizerischer Beobachter) in response to the question of whether readers had experienced dreams involving appearances of persons, spirits, intimations, etc. that later came true. One woman’s report is particularly germane:

When I was nine I lost my father. I was inconsolable and mourned him for many years ... Then one Christmas Eve I had gone to bed but had planned to go to Midnight Mass. It was just time for me to get up when I was overcome by terrible stomach colic and had to stay in bed. The pain soon passed off, but then it was too late for Mass. So I stayed in bed. Suddenly I heard the door open and there were soft footsteps with a strange noise of knocking – I was alone at home and was rather frightened. Then the miracle happened – my beloved father came towards me, shining and lovely as gold, and transparent as mist. He looked just as he did in life. I could recognize his features quite distinctly, then he stopped beside my bed and looked at me lovingly and smiled. A great peace entered into me and I felt happier than I had felt before ... Then he went away.8

It is quite apparent that the mind sometimes calls up unconscious memories under the dramatic stress of loss. The collapse of the mourner’s world unleashes a rush of powerful psychic energies.9 Often the question of guilt also takes on heightened significance in this regressive phase.10 Here normal reality controls can be overwhelmed when the unconscious, unable to bear the loss of a loved one, creates in its own defense a pseudo-satisfaction.

Judged in this way, of course, Cephas’ vision would have to be characterized as a delusion based on wishful thinking. Indeed, his vision would appear to be an example of unsuccessful mourning; unsuccessful because it abruptly cuts off the very process of mourning and substitutes fantasy for unpalatable reality.

Also instructive along these lines are investigations undertaken at Harvard into cases of mourning and the painful loss associated with them.11 The researchers followed forty-three widows and nineteen widowers through the bereavement process, interviewing them at three weeks, eight weeks, and thirteen months after the spouse’s death. The aim was to investigate what enabled people to work their way through the mourning process. Three primary factors were identified as inhibiting or preventing a successful passage through the mourning period: first, the suddenness of a death; second, an ambivalent attitude toward the deceased, involving feelings of guilt; and third, a dependent relationship.

In the case of all the disciples, but especially that of Peter, we should note that all three of these factors apply. First, Jesus’ death was violent, unexpected, and sudden. Second, even the gospel accounts offer evidence that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus was marked by ambivalence and feelings of guilt: one need recall only that Peter denied Jesus and wept bitterly. Third, the dependent relationship of the disciples to Jesus is evident in that most of them had given up their work and homes and families to be with him. And their dependence was no doubt further intensified by the fact that they constituted a very small group that had detached itself from its religious and social roots, and thus had to a considerable degree parted company with the outside world.

By a bold if unconscious leap, Peter entered the world of his wishes. As a result he “saw” Jesus, concluded that his Lord had risen from the dead, and by witnessing to his vision made it possible for the other disciples to “see” Jesus in the same way. It would therefore seem all but certain that the Christian church is to some extent the historical result of the disciples’ grief.


1 Yorkick Spegel, The Grief Process: Analysis and Counseling, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978.

2 Spiegel, The Grief Process, p. 182.

3 Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, London: Tavistock Publications, 1972.

4 Spiegel, The Grief Process, p. 184.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Spiegel, The Grief Process, p. 185.

8 Aniela Jaffe, Apparitions: An Archetypal Approach to Death Dreams and Ghosts. With a Foreword by C.G. Jung, Irving, TX: Spring Publications, Inc., 1979, p. 57.

9 Cf. Spiegel, The Grief Process, p. 73.

10 Spiegel, The Grief Process, p. 76.

11 Colin Murray Parkes and Robert S. Weiss, Recovery from Bereavement, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1983.