A reader writes:
Something in How Jesus Became God that resonated personally was the discussion in Chapter Five regarding After-Death Communications as an explanation for the visions of the resurrected Christ that some disciples received. Our son was born with a severe heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery at age two. We were told there was a 90% chance of his survival. Two days after the surgery, he suffered heart failure in the ICU. We went through several weeks of alternating between hope and despair as to what could be done for him, including receiving a heart transplant, but eventually we had to decide to remove all life support. He died in our arms, slowly, hour by hour, as we watched his vital signs decline to nothingness.
Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced anything so emotionally tortuous. We both fell into depressions, and in my case I began to experience dreams that I was being visited by my son. What was exceedingly real about these dreams was the physical sense of holding him in my arms, his cheek next to mine, listening to him babble. A tremendous sense of contentment flooded over me, knowing that he was alive. I would wake up at peace, and it would take five or more minutes for me to understand I was back in a different world of pain and sorrow. These dreams persisted for a few months and then stopped entirely.
I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but I am a believer that experiences such as these could convince anyone that someone close to them who had died tragically and unexpectedly, was alive in a real sense – not here on earth, but in heaven (if they believed heaven exists). This could have happened to any number of Christ’s followers, and it was a very short step for them to then exalt Jesus as being at the right hand of the Father, since his disciples had spent three extremely intense years speculating that this unique and remarkable man could very well be the promised Son of Man, or even the Son of God.
My own effort to explain how I view the Resurrection of Jesus is in my last post in the Book Club here. But I also have personal experiences that are similar to my readers, and I wrote about them at length in my book about surviving the plague of AIDS, Love Undetectable. I was diagnosed with HIV six weeks after one of my closest friends at the time had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had kept it a secret, until one afternoon he asked to meet me at the fountain in Dupont Circle, where he told me his diagnosis as I told him mine. The coincidence had us both smiling. We were already both Catholics and both writers and both gay in a terrifying era very different from today. But from that moment on, we bonded even more deeply, and over the next two years, I and his other close friends took care of him as he slowly slipped away from us. I saw him turn into a walking skeleton; I saw him pound the floor in pain; I saw him wracked by intense and unremitting fevers; I saw his breath literally taken away from him; I saw as cancer lesions speckled his body and advanced relentlessly toward his lungs; I saw the unspeakable shock and pain of his family; I listened to his voice, racked with fear and pain, over the phone at night; and I was entrusted with the details of his funeral. Watching my dear friend die at 31 of an agonizing disease will never leave me. And I will always, somewhere deep down, feel in some ways guilty for having lived, while he died.
But after his death, I felt his presence strongly at times. He appeared to me in symbols – like the sea-gulls that flew over the bay where we had released his ashes, or one gull that kept recurring in my life on the Cape and elsewhere as an almost sacred sign of his presence. He appeared to me in my dreams – and in one unforgettable one, I didn’t at first recognize him.
He was Patrick and yet no longer Patrick. His tormented shell of a body, racked by slow starvation and countless lesions, was now resplendent. His face was clear, his body more luminous than in life, all flaws removed. And he was happy. Weeks would then pass and I would suddenly be arrested by a sense of his presence – on the sidewalk, reading a book, sleeping on the beach. I cannot fully explain this, although a modern mind can always analyze it from the perspective of grief, survivor guilt, wish-fulfillment, and the like. And over time, Patrick’s presence diminished. But I experienced it as very, very real for as long as it lasted.
So, yes, I can indeed see the disciples having similar experiences – and they have been attested to in countless other lives as well, in studies and surveys over the years, as Ehrman notes. I infer from mine that Patrick is alive and well, and that one day, we will be together again. Perhaps at that fountain in Dupont Circle. And we will be laughing. And happy. And free from death and the fear of death. That is my faith. And I believe it was the faith of the disciples as well. It is what I mean by resurrection.
(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to firstname.lastname@example.org rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: Pietro Lorenzetti from the basilica in Assisi.)