Paul and Visions

Since visions have arisen as the current topic of choice, and my statement about Paul having a vision of Jesus, and not seeing him physically resurrected resulted in a comment, thought I would address it.

Did Paul see a physical Jesus?

First we need to look at Paul’s own writings. This was a man who thought people (arguably himself) could either in-body or out-of-body “project” to the Third Heaven and could hear things not permissible to tell. (2 Cor. 12:1-5)

If someone said that today, would it be thought of as a physical event, or a spiritual vision?

Paul stated he had so many exceedingly great revelations, he could even become conceited. (2 Cor. 12:7) If someone said that today, would it be a physical revelation, or a spiritual vision?

Paul believed that Jesus spoke directly to him in actual words. (2 Cor. 12:9; 1 Cor. 11:23; 1 Cor. 7:12. Acts 18:9) He did not receive a Gospel from men, but from revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11) If someone told you that Jesus actually spoke to them in English words, would you think it actual, or a vision?

When did Paul get all this information from Jesus? Certainly not prior to his conversion. Apparently not at his conversion. Paul speaks of growing information, and learned experiences throughout the progression of his books. Paul was continually getting revelation, and quotes from Jesus. Now, is the Christian maintaining that Jesus physically re-appeared and discussed these things with Paul? Popping in and out on various occasions?

Why would we, when Paul himself admits in belief of possible “out-of-body” experiences in which a person can enter Paradise, and hear inexplicable things? Paul admits that his comings and goings are dictated by these revelations. (Gal 2:1) Was that a physical appearance?

If someone said that today, would we think the new information, the new revelations were spiritual visions, or Jesus physically appearing?

What does Paul say about his own conversion? Not much. He says he was persecuting the church of God, and then God revealed His son “in me.” (Gal 1:16) What little study I have done, indicates the Greek word apokalupto is an internal revelation, not external. In means exactly that—“in” as within the limits of space. Paul does not claim, here, that Jesus was externally revealed to him, but internally revealed in him. In fact, Christians today would use this same language, without even thinking of the implications of a physical appearance.

And (with one exception) that is it on what Paul writes about seeing Jesus. Now let’s look at what the author of Acts records.

[Side note: Why I doubt Acts as being historical. Acts. 9:1 has Paul asking the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus to take prisoners back to Rome. A Pharisee, asking a Sadducee for a letter of authority in a city in which the high priest had no authority whatsoever. In fact, if found with the letter, it is very likely the high priest would be killed for trying to exert power outside his domain by the Romans. An unlikely request for an unnecessary letter that is only trouble.]

Does Paul see Jesus? Nope. He sees a light and hears a voice. (Acts 9:3) It should be noted that Paul did not recognize the voice; let alone any claim to recognize a face that wasn’t seen. The people with him did not see anyone.

God himself now says that Paul has a vision. (Acts. 9:12) A straight reading of the text would be that Paul saw a light, and later saw a vision of some sort.

But perhaps the author of Acts is adding their own bend to the story. Let’s see how the author records what Paul says happened. Nope, again we have a bright light and a voice. (Acts 22:6-7) No mention of Jesus.

Think on this for a moment. This is a fellow that has so many revelations; he has a problem with pride. He talks regularly of Jesus teaching him directly. Yet the one thing he does NOT say is “Jesus appeared to me on the road.” According to Acts, immediately after recounting his tale of seeing this light and hearing this voice Paul DOES refer to a later instance in which Jesus appeared to him. In a trance. (Acts. 22:18) If Paul deliberately and particularly refrains from stating he saw Jesus at this event, how can the Christian claim to know more than Paul?

When Paul tells the tale to King Agrippa (same thing. Lights. Voice. No Jesus) he refers to it as a vision. (Acts. 26:19)

If someone said this today, would you believe that Jesus actually physically appeared, or that this was a spiritual vision?

Taking all of this into account, if there was nothing more, we would be done. Paul speaks as if these were visions; Acts speaks as if these were visions.

So now we come to the lone applicant for a physical appearance—1 Cor. 15:8 Paul says Jesus appeared to Peter first (the Gospels say some women) and after that to Peter (the gospels have two unknown followers) then the Twelve (the Gospels only have eleven.) Paul records Jesus then appeared to over 500 (not in the Gospels) and then to James (not in the Gospels) and then to all the apostles (possibly in Matthew. You know—where some of them doubted.) Then, finally to Paul.

When? When did Jesus make this appearance to Paul? Before Paul’s conversion? This is extremely problematic, because it would mean that Paul saw Jesus post-mortem, and was not convinced. At Paul’s conversion? This is contrary to both what Paul says in Galatians, and what Acts records as having happened.

Yes, I know the Sunday School stories all have Jesus appearing in the flash of light. Just not what the authors record, even though the author immediately records events of Jesus appearing at a later time.

The only possible remaining time, is some period after the conversion event. Which starts to create problems. If Acts is going to be considered History, Paul records having visions of Jesus while in a trance. When Paul uses the word “appear” in 1 Cor. 15, he could easily be meaning that as in “appear in a vision.” Remember, this is the fellow that believes people can have auditory visions in the Third Heaven; it is not out of the realm of possibility, that he can hold to visual visions in this world.

We are always informed that “Scripture must interpret Scripture.” If every other verse points in one direction, and one points in another, we are to look at the anomaly and see how it fits to all of the other instances.

Every other verse points to Paul believing he had spiritual visions in Jesus. Spiritual Revelations. Spiritual conversations. Some while in a trance.

If, in 1 Cor. he says Jesus “appeared to him” and elsewhere these appearances are visions, the most natural conclusion is that Paul is talking about visions. In fact, in order to get the results desired, the Christian must abandon the normal claim of Scripture interpreting Scripture!

If the Christian is claiming Paul is stating a physical appearance, when did it occur, and why was it not recorded?

I have compared these visions to Virgin Mary appearances, and wondered why Christians hold Paul’s visions as actual, but not the Virgin Mary’s. I have been informed they are nothing alike.

Let’s see:

Most Christians hold that Jesus received a modified but partially recognizable physical body post resurrection. That he then went to heaven.

AFTER this, he appears to Paul, (at least sometimes as a vision, and while Paul is in a trance), imparts spiritual wisdom, and continues to pop in and out.

Most Christians hold that Mary died, went to Heaven, and receives a modified spiritual body of some sort. If a Christian resurrection is similar to Jesus’; this modified body is recognizable in some way with the former physical one.

AFTER this, Mary appears to people on earth, in an apparent recognizable physical form, imparts spiritual wisdom, and then continues to pop in and out.

How is that different than Paul’s experience? The only difference I see is bias.

We all have biases. I presume everyone in the world likes French Fries, for example, just because I do. Does not make bias “evil” or “wrong” but it is simply a part of humanity.

Because of how Christians are raised and taught, there is an inherent bias to presume that Paul felt a physical Jesus appeared to him. What one must be careful to do is recognize that bias, and refrain from using it as a methodology for what is a vision, and what is actual. Because many Christians are equally bias against the possibility of the Virgin Mary appearing in a physical form, and that people who hold to belief in such visions are genuine, honest, and sincere. But incorrect.

Using this same method, when applied to Paul, it would seem he was genuine, honest and sincere as well. And equally incorrect.


BruceA said...

That's interesting. As a Christian from a mainline Protestant denomination, I hadn't been aware that there are churches that teach that Jesus appeared physically to Paul. Frankly, I'm surprised that anyone could read 1 Corinthians 15:8 as referring to anything other than a vision, given -- as you have shown -- the context of the rest of the New Testament.

Alan Lund said...

A correction for your side note about Acts 9:1: Paul wanted to bring the Christians back to Jerusalem, not Rome. I would not want that error to detract from the point you make there.

As for Paul's visions, like brucea I am not aware of anybody who holds that Jesus appeared physically to Paul. More often (in skeptical circles), it is pointed out that when Paul lists Jesus' obviously visionary appearance to him along with the appearances to others in 1 Cor 15:8, that this might indicate that those other appearances were likewise visionary, not that they were all physical. This fits in well with the idea that early believers held to the notion of a spiritual resurrection, not a physical resurrection and that the later gospel accounts were legendary developments.

DagoodS said...

alan lund –lol! Thanks. I was reading Pliny the Younger and typing this at the same time. Goes to show I am human, I guess.

Daniel said...

A good theist resource to check out in support of a bodily resurrection that discusses 1 Cor 15 at some length is this article by Craig.

Craig's casting of the skeptic argument:
1. Paul's information is at least prima facie more reliable than the gospels.
a. For he stands in closer temporal and personal proximity to the original events.

2. Paul's information, in contrast to the gospels, indicates Jesus possessed a purely spiritual resurrection body.
a. First Argument:
(1) Paul equated the appearance of Jesus to him with the appearances of Jesus to the disciples.
(2) The appearance of Jesus to Paul was a non-physical appearance.
(3) Therefore, the appearances of Jesus to the disciples were non-physical appearances.
b. Second Argument:
(1) Paul equated Jesus's resurrection body with our future resurrection bodies.
(2) Our future resurrection bodies will be spiritual bodies.
(3) Therefore, Jesus's resurrection body was a spiritual body.

3. Therefore, Jesus possessed a purely spiritual resurrection body.

A major prong of the apologia here appears to be quoting Gundry on the meaning of soma:
"The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with 'flesh' in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives and acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer. Barring prior occurrence of the Parousia, the soma will die. That is the lingering effect of sin even in the believer. But it will also be resurrected. That is its ultimate end, a major proof of its worth and necessity to wholeness of human being, and the reason for its sanctification now."

DagoodS said...

Good link, Daniel Morgan. Interesting that Craig implies that the light and voice of the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus were in addition to the appearance of Jesus.

Yet when one reads Acts, and all three accounts (in addition to Galatians) there is no mention of Jesus appearing. Craig does not address that.

I think Craig, though, is correct in stating that just because Paul saw Jesus in a vision in 1 Cor. 15:8, does NOT mean we can immediately assume that Paul was stating all the other appearances were visions. Nor, thought equally, does it mean Paul does not.

Once again we are left with the “I don’t know.”

The thing that is most disquieting with me in the spiritual vs. physical resurrection debate in Paul’s writing is the minute Greek translation differences that are debated back and forth, as to their exact meaning, and what Paul meant.

Let’s face it. Paul was as clear as a puddle of mud on this issue. The fact he has to address it in the first place (after personally seeing the Corinthians) and then address it again in another letter shows that he was not exactly lucid on this topic. We are now left, in the 21st Century “guessing” as to the correct wording and grammar in a dead language.

Did Paul consider it physical or spiritual? Personally, I have seen the arguments for both, and find myself left standing on the fence in this regard. Either way, Paul certainly felt that any appearances of Jesus to Paul were visionary. Whether Paul thought Jesus was physically on this earth for a period of time, and then ascended, or had a one-way trip becomes moot when discussing Paul’s interaction with Jesus.

Oh, and the problem with placing Paul closer to the events of Jesus, does not make him more knowledgeable. Paul doesn’t quote Jesus, doesn’t cite a miracle, and seems to know very few facts about Jesus. We are then, to presume, the ONE thing he happens to know is the ONE thing the Christian is attempting to prove—a physical resurrection? Seems a bit forced to me.

Others results may vary. Thanks for the link.

Steven Carr said...

Paul says flat-out that Jesus became a life-giving spirit, and that his resurrected body was made of a different material to that of Adam. Jesus was made from heavenly material, and we will be too, according to Paul.

Paul regards the Corinthians as idiots for wondering how their could be a resurrection when corpses decay and rot (Presumably they had never heard of a corpse which did not decay and rot)

Paul tells them such questions are stupid, because we will get a spiritual body - one made of spirit.

Christian apologists like to say Paul was telling the Corinthians that by spiritual body , he means their body will be controlled by the spirit.

But how would that answer their question?

Take 2 possible conversations and see what meaning of spiritual body makes sense.

Conversation 1

Corinthians. How can people be resurrected , when corpses lack a head or an arm?
Paul. You idiot. What goes into the ground dies, and your corpse will become a spiritual body, filled with the Holy Spirit.

Corinthians. Yes, but how can my head be filled with the Holy Spirit, if my corpse doesn't have a head?

Conversation 2

Corinthians. How can people be resurrected , when corpses lack a head or an arm?
Paul. You idiot. What goes into the ground dies, and you will get a new body, made of spirit.

Corinthians. I see what I was missing now. If I get a new body, made of spirit, it was stupid of me to worry what happens to the corpse.

Clearly, Paul's reply only answers the Corinthians doubts, if he is telling them they will get a body made of spirit.

Greg said...

Side note: A few reasons why I doubt the value of DagoodS comments on Acts 9. First off, Paul's intent is to take prisoners to Jerusalem, not Rome (very basic error). Secondly, the letters are to the synagogues, not the officials of the city. The Jewish High Priest would obviously hold some sway with the Jewish leaders in the Jewish synagogues. So the comment regarding authority is clearly either irrelevant or false (false if you meant that the High Priest had no power in the synagogues). Thirdly, let’s assume that you're right and the nature of the letter and that this story is stupid. What does that prove? Why not just think that Saul and the High Priest did something stupid and Luke is just reporting the facts? That's like finding a newspaper article about an embarrassingly stupid decision made by President Bush and saying, "Bah! That can't possibly be history. That's the stupidest thing ever." But all of the comments seem to assume that you know a lot more about the content of the letters than you possibly could.

Daniel said...


So, you took all that time to try to refute something DagoodS said as a side note, to support his own belief that Acts 9 is ahistorical?

[eye roll]

Have anything of substance to address, like whether or not early belief in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus undermines nearly all of Christian theology, and exposes the later gospel accounts as apologetic in nature?

DagoodS said...


I am truly sorry if my stupid mistake caused you to discredit the entire blog statement. I would hope that you consider the fact that I would have no gain in saying Paul was taking these prisoners back to Rome (demonstrating it really was an innocent error) as well as the fact that I cite the actual verse from which the story is derived, so clearly I was not attempting to mislead people.

I blogged out the reasons I find this story to not be history.

Two other points.

Part of the reason I enjoy errors I make being pointed out, is that it demonstrates the double standard some people use in approaching the Bible. If I make a mistake, it is considered (rightly) human error. But if a similar statement is made in the Bible, I see Herculean efforts to contort and contrive the verses to, in some way, make it fit.

Imagine, for example, if the author of Acts did state “Rome” in Acts 9:2. I would suspect Christians would start to argue about how the arrests of Roman Citizen Christians would require a trip to Rome, and that is why the author indicated Rome. (See Pliny the Younger)

Voila—what in me is considered an error is taken as fact. Why? Because it is in the Bible. It is very eye-opening to lose the presumption that the authors of the Bible do not conflict with each other.

Secondly, I do appreciate your input. The reason I cite verses, and give references is in the hope that people look up the verses and give direction as to things I may not have considered, or are not included in the context.

I may have to modify my argument, or even abandon it altogether if I missed something. (That humanity thing again) So, please. Keep looking me up, and keep pointing out errors.

greg said...

Daniel Morgan: "All that time" spent responding to DagoodS side note ammounted to just under 200 words. It might have taken me all of five minutes. Perhaps if I had spent 2000 words on this you might have a point.

DagoodS: "I would hope that you consider the fact that I would have no gain in saying Paul was taking these prisoners back to Rome (demonstrating it really was an innocent error)..." I don't think I ever said it was intentional or deceptive. It simply betrays a lack of care in preparing your post. But, I'm not going to discount the blog simply because of one poor argument--I'd have stopped reading this blog long ago if that were the case ;). Every argument should be accepted or rejected based on its own merit.

Anonymous said...

I read the bible cover to cover for the first time when I was 5 years old.Completely full of holes I deemed it to be by the time my age reached 9. Priests,Pastors,Deacons,sunday school teachers,and little old ladies would run when they saw me coming to them with more of my self proclaimed "greater understanding" of scripture.I was bent on dethroning Jesus.I believed I was doing a fine job of it.I continued without tiring until i had a "vision" myself.If that's what you want to call it.I was 14.Now I'm 36 and only a few people know of this.I know better than most what seems to be "bullcrap" in the bible.It is not what it seems.If anyone is interested in conversing with me on biblical matters.Let me know through this site....CW