By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
What we can know historically about Paul’s life and teaching is based on a judicious consideration of the book of Acts, and by paying careful attention to the letters he almost certainly wrote. From the time frame that Paul himself sets out in his letters, it appears that Paul’s conversion must have occurred about three years after the death of Jesus.
Paul’s Visionary Experience
In one place, Paul says that he had a kind of revelation. In Galatians 1:16, he says, “God revealed his son to me.” In other places, he says that he saw Jesus alive after his death. He says, for example, in First Corinthians 15:8, “Christ appeared to me.2 And in chapter 9 of First Corinthians verse 1, he says, “I have seen the Lord.” These references are apparently about the same event where Paul appears to have had some visionary experience.
Paul says it was Jesus alive again. Christians continue to say so, and they commit their lives accordingly. Non-Christians think not and maintain that it was some kind of hallucination. Either interpretation makes sense of the historical situation. When Paul’s experience is called a vision, it is not because one wants to insist it didn’t happen, but simply because whatever Paul saw, he saw it.
The word vision comes to us from the Latin word video, which means ‘to see’. Paul certainly saw something, whether it was actually there or not. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t give us a detailed description. And the three accounts in the book of Acts where we have accounts of Paul’s conversion (Acts chapters 9, 22, and 24) contradict each other. And so, it’s hard to take the book of Acts to know exactly what’s happening.
Paul’s Theological Conclusions
Paul himself insisted that he did have a vision of Jesus, and that’s about all he says. But it was enough for him. Paul concluded that Jesus was alive, even though he knew full well that Jesus had been executed several years earlier. As an apocalyptic Jew, Paul could only draw one conclusion. If Jesus was dead, but now he was alive, God must have raised him from the dead.
Once Paul thought that, possibly as soon as he had this vision, he completely changed his mind about a number of things in highly significant ways. He did not stop being an apocalyptic Jew; instead, he realized that his apocalyptic hopes had begun to be fulfilled, but in ways he had never expected. He started reasoning backward from his experience to the necessary theological implications.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Paul’s Eschatological Conclusions
First, Paul had eschatological conclusions. The term eschatology refers to one’s understanding of what’s going to happen at the end, at the eschaton. Paul’s understanding of the end time changed as a result of his vision.
In apocalyptic thinking, people who have died are going to be raised from the dead. Those who have sided with God would be rewarded, and those who have been against God would be punished. And so, the dead would be brought back to life.
Paul also thought that all people would be raised from the dead at the end of the age. Then he had his vision of Jesus.
Now, somebody had been brought back to life; somebody had experienced the resurrection. What was Paul supposed to think when he realized that somebody now had been raised from the dead? He thought that the resurrection had begun.
In other words, Jesus was the first and the others were soon to follow. That’s why Paul maintained throughout his letters that he and his readers were living at the end of history. Human history as they knew it was very soon to come to a crashing halt. Jesus’ resurrection showed that we’re living at the end and Paul expected Jesus to return any time.
God’s Favored Human
Equally important were his Christological conclusions, that is, his understanding of who Christ was. Because it was specifically Jesus who was raised, Paul concluded that Jesus really must have been the one especially favored by God. That certainly was confusing to Paul because Jesus had been crucified. It didn’t seem like he was the one standing under God’s special favor if God allowed him to be tortured to death.
Paul came to think that somehow or other, even though Jesus had died on a cross, since God had raised him from the dead, then obviously God had favored him in some way, but he’s also no longer here on earth. So, Jesus is no longer here; he’s been raised by God to live with him in heaven.
Common Questions about the Consequences of Paul’s Conversion after Having a Vision of Jesus
Paul’s conversion came after he had his vision of Jesus. Since Paul knew that Jesus had been executed a few years ago, and since he was an apocalyptic Jew, he concluded that the only possibility was that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.
Paul believed that at the end of time people would be raised from the dead. His conversion led to him believing that Jesus had been resurrected, and so he concluded that the resurrection had started and that he was living at the beginning of the end.
After his conversion, Paul concluded that the resurrection at the end of time had begun. Since it had begun with Jesus, then it made sense that somehow Jesus had been specially chosen by God to be resurrected. So Jesus must have been favored by God to live with him in heaven.