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.

Comments (9)

We don't really know what Jesus' disciples claimed to have experienced or in what tone they made their claims. One possible source is indeed intense mourning and distress but if I suggested steely determination to make their cause, the higher truth, prevail I would be no further from plausibility. Our records do not tell us what manner of men the apostles were. The Gospels are theological, not biographical essays, written without any of the personal contact that is necessary for psychological insight into their subjects. It wasn't important theologically to explore Peter's personality. It was important to discuss the authority which Peter, portrayed as often fallible but as always restored, had in the Church.

#1 - Martin - 04/17/2012 - 19:29

I have heard repeatedly that crucified persons were left exposed to animals or even buried in mass graves. Is there early, reliable textual evidence of this practice?

#2 - Jesse Toler - 04/18/2012 - 13:27

With respect to grief, years ago I split with a woman I had been head over heels in love with; and, I began to see her in every car with a blonde driver. No one else saw her, and over time it stopped. Huh...

#3 - Jesse Toler - 04/18/2012 - 13:33

Every day we hear about deceased family members,and friends,
talking to the ones they knew and loved. I am sure the visions of Jesus for those Fourty days were true. But not understood for its day. Now we know them as an Aberration. His soul had left the body and was seen, but not understood.

#4 - Bill - 04/19/2012 - 09:13

Many early Christians (including all but one of the Apostles) suffered martyrdom for their Christian faith. Would you put your "seeing" your ex-girlfriend in the same category as those who saw, touched, and heard Jesus after his resurrection?

Was Peter the only person who "saw" the risen Jesus?

#5 - Michael - 04/19/2012 - 13:18

Dear professor Luedemann,
I have a great respect for your work but I disagree with your conclusions here. Mark's 'empty tomb' is transparently a spritualist pun on the self-description of the Paulinist community as the 'body of Christ'. If in the earliest gospel the women did not report the rising to the disciples, then the 'appearances' of Jesus did not occur as a result of grieving but as a theological argument to Pauline-Markan claim of gospel priority cca 50 years after Jesus' death.


#6 - Jiri Severa - 04/21/2012 - 13:14

The ending of Mark may imply, as per Jiri, that the Resurrection Kerygma occurred only after a delay. That does not show that Jesus' followers never claimed to have had experiences of the Risen Lord or that such claims were not taken seriously.
We certainly have evidence of grief-driven and memory-driven experiences of the dead and of the absent, as Bill and Jesse remark. But the further stage, that of having reports of these experiences taken seriously and treated as if they were objective, is harder to understand.
I don't think that they were accepted because they were psychologically intense but because to the apostles and to their followers they made such good theological sense. I still think that the Gospels and Paul's relevant report are not attempts to reveal, so hardly can reveal, the states of mind of Peter, his associates and the 500 witnesses, except perhaps for their joy on being convinced of the Kerygma.
One of the few references to states of mind is in Matthew, when he says that some doubted. I take this, contrary to Michael, as a strong hint that not all of Jesus' immediate followers continued in the Way. The writer of the Epistle of Clement, which is quite reticent (unless we over-interpret 'bearing witness') about the fates even of Peter and Paul, would surely have been in a position to mention, and would have mentioned, the general martyrdom of the apostles had this occurred. Some Christians were killed by Nero but Nero's assaults on Christians were not organised so that the victims could save themselves by recanting, but were punishments meted out to people whom he alleged were bloodstained terrorists.
I'm wary of attempting to undermine or confirm the Kerygma by psychological means.

#7 - Martin - 04/21/2012 - 23:35

I do not think it is appreciated enough that Paul and Mark were the first composers of the church, rather than members of its choir. The experience of the Risen One was not likely something available to the disciples, as the novel semantics for 'resurrection' by all appearances originated in Paul's head. Even if one admits the possibility of a 'crucified Messiah' in sectarian Judaism pre-dating Jesus, the idea of resurrection occuring in the past, and signifying bodily metamorphosis and life beyond God's creation on earth, would not have been credited as consistent with Jewish faith. This of course does not argue against the possible, and likely, psychological effects of Jesus' passing on the preaching of him as martyr of the last days from Jerusalem, only that it took form of the resurrectional kerygma. Mark tells us in no uncertain terms that such concept was unavailable in Jesus' time (9:10).

#8 - Jiri Severa - 04/22/2012 - 17:23

I am quite sure that Mary Magdalene (the first witness to the Resurrection, not Peter) as well as every other witness, was deeply affected on a psychological level. But I do not think that explains the change in their beings. The Jews were no strangers to ghosts, phantasms, any more than we moderns are. Seeing a ghost, I can attest, is a very odd and surreal experience but not life altering. The apostles lives were altered by an experience more profound than seeing a phantasm, whatever a phantasm ultimately actually is.

The Resurrection was and is a reality. But of what nature? Paul claimed that his visionary experience was the same experience as that of the twelve apostles. Was that visionary experience brought on by tremendous stress? Probably partly. But there had to be other elements than merely that. The Resurrection remains an enigma.


#9 - Nathaniel J. Merritt - 05/22/2012 - 20:06

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