“Oh, so you believe in that Jesus appeared to his followers after he died, huh? Do you believe Elvis is still alive too?” You often hear this kind of mockery from skeptics. Just as urban legends and conspiracy theories have sprung up shortly after Elvis’ death, the same is likely true of Jesus, and both are equally unbelievable.
The atheist philosopher Keith Parsons writes, “Like sightings of Elvis, such (resurrection) stories and bizarre experiences feed off each other and snowball.” But is that really the way resurrection stories spread? Rather than being all shook up over this rather dismissive objection, let’s see how fair this comparison is.
No, Elvis Isn’t Alive
On August 16, 1977, Elvis’ died in his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only 42 years old, and the news devastated his fans. But it wasn’t too long before people started to speculate that he faked his death, pulling off one heck of a disappearing act. Elvis enthusiasts swear they have seen him at train stations, in Home Alone, as a groundskeeper at Graceland, and as a singing pastor in Arkansas.
But there’s a problem. Evidence for Elvis’ death is overwhelming. Patrick Lacy, a researcher on “Elvis is Alive” theories writes:
The body of evidence to support and prove that Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, on the other hand, is verifiable and unimpeachable. To wit, we have eyewitness statements from scores of Elvis’s family members, friends, and associates, as well as from others who saw the body from the time it was discovered on the bathroom floor through the closing of the casket following the funeral service two days later.
In addition, we have the unbiased and disinterested statements and/or testimony from Elvis’s personal physician, the doctors on the autopsy team, the administration at Baptist Memorial Hospital, the emergency room personnel, the Shelby County medical examiner, the investigator from the Shelby County medical examiner’s office, the paramedics who responded to the emergency call, the staff at the Memphis Funeral Home, Dade County medical examiner Dr. Joseph Davis (who reviewed the autopsy materials in 1994), and the various guards and personnel who saw the body at Baptist Memorial Hospital and at the Memphis Funeral Home during the time period in question (the afternoon of August 16, 1977, through the afternoon of August 18, 1977).
But Isn’t There Evidence Elvis Faked His death?
Conspiracy theorists point to Elvis’ middle name (Aron) being misspelled on his tomb as some kind of sign to his fans that he’s alive. On his gravestone, the marker reads Elvis Aaron Presley. This is, of course, pretty thin evidence that Presley is alive. Elvis’ dad, Vernon, is the one who chose the spelling, and there’s no conclusive evidence that it’s actually misspelled.
There’s one theory that there was a replacement body to stand in for Elvis, but Lacy writes why theory is as nutty as it sounds.
“According to the “replacement body” theory, the dead body that was discovered at Graceland, delivered to the emergency room, autopsied, and ultimately buried at Graceland six weeks later (the casket had been placed in a mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis on August 18, 1977, the day of Elvis’s funeral) was donated as part of an elaborate death hoax. The Presley Commission, a group self-appointed to investigate Elvis’s death, outlined this strange theory in their 1995 publication “The Presley Report,” which was supposed to be an in-depth analysis of Elvis’s death but in reality, was a piece of death-hoax propaganda (if there is such a thing).
The replacement body theory is wholly illogical on its face, but if one delves more deeply into the plot, it is quite obvious that there was not even a simulacrum of critical thinking applied to this narrative and that the originators of this claim didn’t properly analyze the data. To put it simply, the Presley Commission applied medical data to the body on the autopsy table (that they claim was the body of someone else) that was extracted from the medical charts of Elvis Presley when he was hospitalized several years earlier at Baptist Memorial Hospital. That is, they applied Elvis’s medical conditions to the body that they claim was not Elvis Presley. And to make matters worse, they incorrectly interpreted that data and reached faulty conclusions.”
So no, Elvis isn’t alive and there is no good evidence to the contrary.
Jesus Didn’t Fake His Own Death.
At Secular Outpost, Bradley Bowen writes that if somehow it was proven that Elvis was alive, we wouldn’t conclude that a miracle happened, but that he faked his death. And if that’s true of Elvis, it’s true of Jesus. Bowen says:
Before it would be reasonable to conclude that Elvis had risen from the dead, it would first need to be proven that Elvis really did die on August 16th in 1977. The fact, if it were to become a fact, that Elvis is now alive, would be very powerful evidence that Elvis did NOT die back in 1977. Perhaps his death was faked. Perhaps the autopsy was faked. Perhaps Elvis did experience clinical death for an hour or so but was resuscitated by natural means or causes. If Elvis was proven to be alive today, that would also be powerful evidence that rumors of his death in 1977 were greatly exaggerated.
The same logic applies to Jesus. If someone someday somehow, per impossible, ever manages to prove that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday, then this would also provide very powerful evidence against the claim that Jesus had died on the cross on Good Friday. So, if someone someday somehow, per impossible, ever manages to prove that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday, that person will have provided us skeptics with a very powerful argument AGAINST the resurrection of Jesus, because they will have provided us with very powerful evidence that Jesus did NOT die on the cross on Good Friday.
But here’s the thing. No scholar seriously thinks that Jesus wasn’t crucified and killed. It’s a matter of historical bedrock. Jesus’ contemporaries never doubted it. Everyone from 30 AD persisted in believing it. Jesus’ public execution was recorded or discussed in:
- All four gospels
- The letters of Paul
- Early non-canonical Christian sources like Ignatius
- In non-Christian sources like Josephus and Tacitus
If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is what two non-Christian historians have to say:
“Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.”
John Dominic Crossan Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
“The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.”
Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry
So why does Ludemann, an atheist, reject the pseudo-death theory? While this theory enjoyed some popularity among 18th and 19th-century German rationalists, it was put to death by David Strauss, who wrote, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at least yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, and impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”
So even if the far-fetched turns out to be true regarding Elvis, Bowen is wrong that it would also apply to Jesus. This is just stubborn anti-supernaturalism on his part.
Unlike Elvis’ Tomb, Jesus’ Tomb Was Empty.
There are a host of reasons to believe that Jesus’ body went missing from the tomb. I won’t go into all the details here, but 1.) the discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable. 2.) It would have been impossible for the apostles to preach resurrection without an empty tomb. 3.) The earliest Jewish polemic was “the disciples stole the body”
If you want a super-in-depth treatment, here’s a scholarly article by William Lane Craig. For the reasons that Craig and others have laid out, most scholars believe Jesus’ tomb was discovered as empty.
Atheist Michael Grant is a classical historian, and he writes, “Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. True, this discovery, as so often, is differently described by the various Gospels — as critical pages early pointed out. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we apply to any other ancient literary sources than the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.”
Appearances of Elvis vs. The Appearances of Jesus
On the topic of Elvis appearances, here again is Patrick Lacy:
Elvis has supposedly been seen at various times and in various locations over the past twenty-five years or so. None of these sightings, however, has been proved to be that of Elvis Presley. The typical “sighting” has these, or a variation of these, components: The man had jet-black hair styled as Elvis had his in the 1970s; the man knew things only Elvis would know; the man-made cryptic remarks about Elvis Presley, about Elvis’s family, and about Elvis’s death; the man acted in a suspicious manner like he was trying to hide or was afraid of being seen, and the list goes on and on. Again, though, there is nothing to indicate that any of these sightings was of Elvis Presley post-August 1977. Thus, “Elvis sightings” are not valid pieces of evidence.
I would note that before the conspiracy talk began in the early 1980s, Elvis was never sighted after August 16, 1977. The only claim of someone seeing Elvis after the time of his death takes us to the Memphis International Airport where he was allegedly seen purchasing a ticket for travel to South America, but as I outline in my book Elvis Decoded, which addresses many of these conspiracy claims, there were no international tickets sold at the Memphis airport in August of 1977. Further, there is no one who can corroborate this claim, trace the claim, or give any insight into its origin. From my research, this ticket-purchasing tale has absolutely no basis in fact, so it appears that Elvis sightings began only after the conspiracy was introduced.
That the disciples, Paul, and James believed to have seen Jesus after his death is uncontested historically. Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar is no friend of traditional Christianity. He writes, “The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believers and unbelievers may agree.”
There’s the big difference between Elvis appearances and Jesus’ appearances. Comparing grainy, zoomed-in photos, and seeing similarities in appearances is one thing. But Peter was Jesus’ student for three years, he’d be able to identify his rabbi. You can say the same about the Twelve.
This similarly works for James. He was Jesus’ brother for over a couple of decades. You’d think he’d be more than able to recognize his older brother. In the case of Elvis, his family and friends by all appearances believe he’s dead, and it’s hard to imagine that they could keep such a conspiracy of him faking his death without slipping for nearly 50 years.
The Religio-Historical Context of Jesus vs. Elvis.
Elvis might have been a hunk of burning love and the king of rock and roll, but he never claimed to be the divine Son of Man. When Jesus called himself this, he was saying he was more than just human. NT scholar Dan Wallace writes:
“The title “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way to describe himself; it refers to a human being, much the same as the phrase “son of Mike” would refer to a child of Mike. However, we aren’t dealing with a matter of either human or transcendent as the title implies. For in Daniel 7, the Son of Man rides the clouds. In the Hebrew Scriptures riding the clouds is something only God does-or something foreign gods are described as doing (Ex. 14:20; 34:5; Num. 10:34; Ps. 104:3; Isa. 19:1). In other words, this human figure is unique in his possession of characteristics that reflect the transcendent divine. Jesus as the Anointed One, the Christ, represents both God and man”
Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.
Jesus also was widely believed to have been a miraculous healer and an exorcist. This is pretty unanimous among critical scholarship. Note that these are liberal scholars, not conservative Christians:
“Viewed globally, the tradition of Jesus’ miracles is more firmly supported by the criteria of historicity than are a number of other well-known and often readily accepted traditions about his life and ministry. . . . Put dramatically but with not too much exaggeration: if the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.”
John Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.’
“Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history.”
Marcus Borg (‘The Mighty Deeds of Jesus.’)
The King’s crooning made the girls in poodle skirts swoon, but he isn’t historically known for being a miracle-worker or exorcist. The resurrection didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a messianic expectation during his time, crowds believed that Jesus worked miracles, and he had a divine self-understanding.
Critics: Stop Comparing Elvis Appearances to Jesus’ Resurrection.
It’s a pretty cheap piece of ridicule to compare Elvis sightings to Jesus’ resurrection. It shouldn’t be necessary to go into this many details, but so long as this objection keeps getting thrown out, it seems necessary to show that there’s just no comparison. Skeptics, please, don’t be cruel. I’m counting on you to please walk a mile in my shoes and stop using this objection, bad Elvis song puns fully intended.
But seriously though, just stop it. Even the famous skeptic Antony Flew said that “the evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on June 1, 2020.