Life beyond death? It’s a bold claim. Granted, it’s a doctrine confessed without much hesitation each week by Christians worldwide. And even the spiritual but not religious crowd often appeals to our deceased loved ones going to a better place. This is because many of us want to believe that we don’t go into oblivion after this short life. But is the claim of resurrection true? Or, alas, is it little more than a way to quell our human fear of death? John the Evangelist contends that Jesus indeed rose from the grave, in the flesh, and that this is a trustworthy hope for those who believe in him to share in that promised triumph over death. Dorothy Sayers rightly wrote concerning the Christian claim of Jesus’ resurrection:
Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as News; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it News, and good news at that; though we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so Sensational.1
Sayers is worth citing here, because I think we’ve become so tired of fraudulent and far-fetched claims about the afterlife and paranormal phenomena that we sometimes ignore the astounding nature of this claim that death might not be the end. It is a big deal, and we can’t just shrug it off. It’s not that kind of mundane claim.
John says at the end of his Gospel that, of all the things he could have written concerning the life and teaching of Jesus (see 20:30), what he chose to include was specifically meant to help people trust in the claim that Jesus, the risen one, was in fact who Christians claimed he was. Such a claim, as unlikely as it seems from a contemporary standpoint, is at least worth exploring sincerely and in depth. Permit me to take us on what might at first seem like a frivolous detour: something that happened on reality television a few years back.
Looking for Life beyond the Grave and Binge-Watching TV
On April 26, 2016, MTV broadcast the most shocking episode of anything that could happen on television. This was an episode of the oft-binged series Catfish, in which the hosts seem to encounter concrete and startling evidence regarding life beyond the grave. Normally, the show connects people who have developed romantic connections online, despite one of the individuals misrepresenting themselves digitally. The show often ends with reconciliation and forgiveness between the parties involved. Sometimes, the couples even get married in real life. But on this episode, a young Kentucky woman named Kayla claimed she was contacted by a woman named Courtney who said she’d been conversing with Kayla’s deceased father.
It gets even weirder: when Kayla was a child, she and her sister watched in horror as their father stabbed their pregnant mother to death. This murderer, with severe mental health issues, eventually committed suicide in prison a few years afterward. Parentless and grieving, nearly a decade and a half later, Kayla eventually decided it would be healing for her to forgive her father, recognizing his schizophrenia, among other psychological conditions. Around that time, she received this unexpected call from Courtney, who claimed she had been receiving messages for Kayla from her dead father.
My family and I streamed this episode one mellow afternoon. Halfway through the show, we sat on the edge of our seats, fixated on the glowing screen in our living room. Surely, we thought, there must be something fraudulent going on; but judging from the dialogue alone, we couldn’t determine who might be lying. With Kayla in tears, Courtney revealed details about secret family history that Kayla claimed only her father and aunt would know. Surprisingly, Courtney didn’t ask for money, nor was she promoting a professional paranormal service. Rather, she was initially reluctant to appear on the show. But Courtney eventually agreed to appear on camera and offer evidence for her startling claims. Eventually, Courtney agreed to serve as an ad-hoc medium, passing messages from the father to Kayla and her aunt, the dead man’s sister. As the episode progressed, Kayla shifted from skepticism to belief that the ghost of her father was indeed contacting her through Courtney.
At this point, a couple of Christian religious concerns arose. First, Kayla and her aunt claimed that they had reservations about conversing with the dead because necromancy was against their Christian beliefs. Second, Kayla broke down in tears as she asked a poignant question: If ghosts are real, she wondered, that presents evidence that there really is a transcendent reality. If there is a transcendent reality, then God must exist. But this brought Kayla to tears; because if God exists, then why would God allow her to lose both her parents?
The show never unmasked—Scooby Doo style—any ruse behind the ghost story. On the contrary, the skeptical cohosts said they believed the story on the show. Even afterward on social media, they doubled down on their belief that there was no prior connection between would-be-medium Courtney and the dead father. Moreover, the show prompted several long threaded discussions on Twitter about the possibility of life after death, evidence for ghosts, and whether such things could possibly be knowable to thinking people these days.
Why do I recount this reality show episode? Because when it ended, my family and I were unsatisfied, intrigued, and wanted to know the rest of the story. Surely, the gravity of the claims made on this show needed some careful follow-up. For if it was true, then the implications would be far more significant than just our rainy-day binge watching: it would challenge not only a materialist’s denial of the supernatural, but also many religious understandings of the afterlife. In short, my family and I wanted the complete story from someone intimately connected to the situation who was able to fill in the hazy details. We needed someone like John the Evangelist to provide a reliable account of these strange events, however otherworldly they turned out to be.
The best we could do, however, was spend the next hour or so scouring the Internet. The only helpful bit of evidence we found was that, despite their claims that necromancy was against their family religion, Kayla’s aunt had previously posted on social media that she was excited to go see a famous medium perform. In the end, my speculation is that the aunt was a passionate believer in mediums. She may or may not have conspired with Kayla. She may or may not have believed her brother’s ghost was making contact. Whatever the case, the fact that she wasn’t truthful about her belief in mediums caused my family to finally dismiss the claims as unworthy of further investigation. This intellectual resolution allowed us to go back to our other mundane tasks that day. But it also left us a bit disappointed, and it raised an additional question: Are all such claims about life after death little more than gullible people allowing their wishful thinking to get in the way of rationality?
Whereas the Catfish story started to seem, well, fishy, John suggests that the account he provides demonstrates the trustworthiness of the Christian claim that Jesus is risen indeed. To what extent, then, were the things he recorded the source of belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God?
Is John’s Gospel Reliable?
To begin to answer this question, it is important to consider whether John’s account is historically reliable. For this, we might turn to the extensive annotations on the New Testament composed by the French Reformed theologian and rector of Calvin’s Genevan Academy, Theodore Beza (1519–1605).2 Beza made the claim that the Gospels, and John’s in particular, are self-authenticating. He agreed with his colleague John Calvin that a person wouldn’t believe in the truth of Christianity without having their spiritual and intellectual blindness healed or having been given ears to hear the proclamation. In other words, whatever the evidence for the biblical texts might be, unbelievers remain stubborn in their unbelief unless the Holy Spirit awakens their hearts and minds to the truth, while the true sheep naturally heed the voice of the Good Shepherd. This perspective has strong support from John’s Gospel, which frequently notes unbelievers’ willful blindness, their preference for darkness over light, and their lack of ears to hear the good news.
Yet Beza spent more energy than Calvin did elaborating the marks (notae) of Scripture’s authority. He didn’t think that unaided human reason could arrive at theological truth. He didn’t think that it could even convince an unbeliever of the reliability of the Gospel text. But he did believe that God tends to work through means, including the means of apologetic arguments for the reliability of John’s Gospel.3
Beza had something helpful to say, then, about the curious way in which John suggests that by merely writing down what he knew about Jesus’ life and teaching, he would provide a source for belief in Christ. He described the self-authenticating text as “autopistic,” a word derived from the Greek implying that something has the ability to generate belief in its trustworthiness without some other authority, such as the decrees of an official church. The Gospel as self-authenticating does not entail fideism (faith apart from any grounds whatsoever). Nor is it like Buddhism, wherein one tries a spiritual method and then evaluates whether it has practical benefit to the disciple. Rather, this concept relates to the way in which Renaissance humanists would approach documents in general.
Humanism in the sixteenth century was often tied to the practice of law. Often, this involved contract law, which relied on the verification and interpretation of important documents, such as last wills and testaments. Thus Christian humanists like Beza described Scripture as God’s last will and testament, and they used some of the same techniques they used to determine whether a will was forged or not to demonstrate the reliability of the resurrection accounts.
Throughout his biblical scholarship, Beza pointed to several authenticating marks. Let me share just two to illustrate the gist of his approach. First, Beza noted that a key witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene (John 20:10–18), makes the account more believable and serves as an “internal mark” of the text’s authenticity. An internal mark is something about a text that does not require external (in this case extrabiblical) evidence. How so? In first-century Jewish law, the testimony of a solitary woman would not be considered sufficient to prove a case. Moreover, the fact that the disciples appear unfaithful in John’s text shows that, if the male disciples had wanted to concoct a story, they wouldn’t have contrived something that cast them in a bad light.
Second, Beza suggested that the text’s “sublime nature” is itself a mark or piece of evidence for its authenticity. In this way of thinking, John’s theological understanding, intimate details, and narration of Jesus’ powerful words all have the ring of truth. Noteworthy here is the idea that Jesus’ audiences often remarked that “no one ever spoke with the sort of authority that Jesus did” (John 7:46).
Consider what it’s like when you go to an auto mechanic. Say you hear a rattling noise. You pull into the repair garage, and a novice technician fumbles around, shrugs, and suggests that maybe you should replace a certain part and see if that fixes it. You might be desperate enough to give this a shot. But what if instead the garage owner, who has decades of experience, came out and confidently explained the cause of the noise. This would likely put you at ease as you took comfort in the sense of confidence and competency contained in the master mechanic’s words. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus comes across like the master mechanic, able to handle his detractors deftly. Jesus does this because he knows who he is and is confident of his relationship to the Father.
Why, then, would so many modern scholars claim that John is unreliable and generally late in terms of composition? I suspect the answer has more to do with the scholar’s personal biases than with the text itself. Here, I’m not referring to the general anti-supernatural bias of secular scholarship, though that’s also a factor. I’m referring to the generally ethical and nontheological understanding of Jesus within mainline Christianity since the late nineteenth century. In that context, Jesus is typically a great moral teacher but not God incarnate. Now, few typically want to suggest they’re against Jesus, or even that he was wrong about something. So, if one could show that Jesus himself never claimed to be God in the flesh (as he clearly does throughout John’s account), then a scholar could deny his divinity as a later innovation but still claim to be a fan of the historical Jesus.
In other words, the academic bias against the reliability of John’s Gospel is typically rooted in an overall anti-theological bias. I could summon several Christian writers to argue my point here, but it might be more helpful to call on someone from outside Christianity. Alan Watts (1915–73) was an Episcopal priest who shed his ordination to teach about Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism. In a lecture on Jesus, he suggests that John presents something historians and religious scholars should take seriously:
So I regard the Four Gospels as on the whole as good a historical document as anything else we have from that period, including the Gospel of Saint John. And that’s important. It used to be fashionable to regard the Gospel of Saint John as late. In other words, at the turn of the century the higher critics of The New Testament assigned the Gospel of Saint John to about 125 A.D. And the reason was just simple. Those higher critics at that time just assumed that the simple teachings of Jesus could not possibly have included any such complicated mystical theology. And therefore they said, “Well, it must be later.”
Now, as a matter of fact, in the text of the Gospel of Saint John the local color, his knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem, and his knowledge of the Jewish calendar is more accurate than that of the other three writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And it seems to me perfectly simple to assume that John recorded the inner teaching which He gave to His disciples and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the more exoteric teaching which He gave to people-at-large.4
One of the more modernist Christian biases is that Jesus never intended to claim that he was God incarnate, yet there is nothing historically to validate that bias. I quoted Watts here because the second paragraph above is a succinct and pithy way of summarizing the internal marks of John’s authenticity. Here, I must note that Watts ultimately suggests that Jesus’ message was that we all are God incarnate. That’s another matter for another time. The point here is that classical Christianity and Watts agree that John provides historical evidence, and that Jesus made astounding claims to divinity, and that this was a major reason why folks wanted him dead. All of this derives from these things that were written by the evangelist so that we might believe in Jesus’ true identity and find new life through that realization (John 20:31).
In addition to what we’ve noticed thus far, John frequently makes note of the evidential value of fulfilled prophecy. For instance, he records Jesus claiming that the Old Testament provides testimony supporting his identity (John 5:39). He is careful to note when historical events correspond to ancient prophecy, such as when the Messiah is said to be from the “seed of David” and born in Bethlehem (John 7:42). Likewise, John refers to Psalm 41, which predicts that Jesus would be betrayed in a particular way: “But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (John 13:18).
Some of the prophecies are major plot points (for instance, John 19:37, 20:27 notes that Jesus’ hands and feet were to be pierced, according to Psalm 22). Other times, John points out little details a casual reader might have missed. For instance, John 18:7–9 reads:
So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.”
Appeals to fulfilled prophecy are often dismissed as inauthentic by pushing forward the dates on the original text. Yet, if we recognize that John’s account demonstrates no knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which occurred in AD 70, it seems that there would have been men and women alive who knew whether the passages about Jesus’ birthplace, interactions with Roman and religious leaders, and associations with friends such as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in fact happened. Fulfilled prophecy, therefore, is another internal mark of the text’s authenticity, one that requires no extrabiblical validation for it to validate the narrative.
Charges of Sorcery and Demonic Power
That said, if we do go looking for extrabiblical verification of John’s Gospel, we find something rather intriguing in the Babylonian Talmud, which records how the unbelieving religious leaders during Jesus’ time made sense of the facts.
It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Sanhedrin 6:2.1C–D)
Note that Yeshu is the Hebraic version of the name Jesus. Hanging refers not only to a noose, but a mode of execution that differed from the traditional Jewish practice of stoning. In any case, the Babylonian Talmud supports the idea that, at the very least, something uncommon occurred. Those who rejected Jesus’ claims couldn’t deny that Jesus had done some astounding things, but they could only attribute his miracles to the dark arts and demonic power.
Privilege and Nationalism versus Jesus’ New Kingdom
If Jesus’ unbelieving contemporaries saw his wonders with their own eyes, then why were they so reluctant to believe? It might have something to do with a phenomenon psychologists call the “sunk-cost bias.” This occurs when we desperately try to hold on to something into which we’ve poured significant time and energy. Note how John records the rationale behind Jesus’ opponents who say, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). Whatever the evidence, they were reluctant to let go of their status and privilege.
How common it is that we sinful mortals tend to be cool with Jesus, so long as his teaching doesn’t threaten our cultural power or national identity! Nonetheless, Christians globally are invited to abide in Scripture and listen attentively to the voice of the Good Shepherd, even when following the way of his kingdom might cause Christians to lose popularity within the dominant culture. There are several other ways in which we are biased against receiving the clear but radical teachings of Jesus, yet it seems that his teaching of how all our meritorious works and spiritual investments are worthless is particularly annoying to religious types.
What Is to Be Believed Precisely?
So far, we’ve seen that John records details that lead us to believe. Before I conclude, though, it’s important to highlight the way in which John isn’t simply pointing readers to a generic belief but to a specific doctrinal understanding of Jesus. Theologians speak of the doctrine of Jesus’ nature and identity as “Christology,” something that is central to John’s Gospel.
John is thus not merely proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and that he rose from the grave; he is also noting that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. Of course, he starts his whole book by establishing this thesis: Jesus was the divine logos, which was present before the foundation of the world, which means that Jesus was God (John 1:1).
In addition, John was trying to disabuse people of the error of Gnosticism (the third-century theologian Irenaeus suggested precisely this in his book Against Heresies 3.16.5). While there were many variations of gnostic theology, they were typically united in their belief that, to borrow a line from the rock band The Police, “We are spirits in a material world.” This way of thinking considers bodies a problem for sentient beings, rather than gifts from the Creator. Thus gnostics taught that the body is essentially bad, while the spirit is essentially good. For this reason, gnostics taught that Jesus was ultimately liberated from the body (if he ever really had one) and appeared to the disciples as a spiritual being. In contrast, John insists that Jesus rose again as a true flesh-and-blood body, even eating a fish breakfast with his disciples after he rose from the dead (John 21:12).
I mentioned earlier that my family found the paranormal Catfish episode “fishy,” while here the “fishy” encounter between Jesus and his old friends is what reminds us that the work of Jesus overcomes the problem of embodied human existence by returning the gift of our embodiment with a new redemptive mission, rather than simply creating a bunch of ethereal beings floating about the universe.
Life in His Name
Finally, John is interested in relating more than mere historical knowledge about Jesus. He put pen to paper not simply to convince his readers to accept abstract doctrines about God. Indeed, biblical faith is primarily not about intellectual assent to the philosophical proposition that God exists. Instead, it is to trust in the idea that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God who sent Jesus into the world, and that through him God would reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). In other words, the God who was faithful to his people in the past will deliver us now as well as our faithful descendants. By believing in Jesus as the Son of God, John says, we receive the consolation that death is not the end of our story. Rather, we learn about the hope of abundant life, which begins here and now in its partial form but finds completion in the Christian hope of a resurrected body. Through the gospel, followers of Jesus have nothing to lose, since they’ve already gained everything as coheirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
Often, as we struggle through the difficulties of this mortal existence, we tend to lose heart. We sometimes relegate our faith to a list of propositions we affirm on Sunday mornings, but God offers a flood of hope that washes out all the shadows and fears of this existence with his eternal light. John ultimately admits that he could have satisfied our curiosity with a massive library containing everything Jesus did and said (John 21:25). Instead, with the testimony he does provide, along with his claim to be a faithful witness to the Christ, he passes on Jesus’ call to Peter and all who have ears to hear: “Follow me,” calls the Good Shepherd to his beloved sheep.
Jeff Mallinson (DPhil) is professor of theology and philosophy at Concordia University, Irvine, and a veteran podcaster.