Why the Resurrection Matters
Christians believe the resurrection is true, and that historical accounts of it have provided adequate evidence to certify it as a real event. Why is the resurrection so important? Because without it, our faith has no basis. The apostle Paul suspends the weight of Christianity on this single thread: If Jesus has not been raised, then our faith is worthless; and we are to be pitied above all men (1 Corinthians 15).
Fortunately, heaps of historical evidence support Jesus’ claim that He would beat death.
Most scholars agree that Jesus was an actual historical person crucified by the Romans. What some take issue with are the supernatural and theological implications of the resurrection. So they’ve come up with naturalistic (anti-supernatural) theories to try to explain the resurrection.
Let’s look at three of these alternate theories: the Apparent Death (Swoon) Theory, the Theft (Conspiracy) Theory, and the Hallucination Theory, to see if they adequately explain away the resurrection.
Apparent Death Theory
This theory, which emerged in the late 1700s and evolved through various liberal German theologians, posits that Jesus did not die on the cross, but only appeared to die. A modern version of this theory was popularized in The Passover Plot, a 1960s book by Hugh Schonfield.
Details of the Theory
This theory states that Jesus merely fainted on the cross, from pain, shock, and loss of blood. He was removed from the cross, alive but unconscious, and placed in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish leadership. Jesus supposedly revived at some point, in part because of the coolness of the tomb. Despite not having access to desperately needed medical care and nourishment, Jesus then supposedly managed to unwrap His dressings by Himself and then, in the total darkness of the tomb, locate and roll away the mammoth stone that sealed the tomb entrance. And then, still unnoticed by the guards, Jesus supposedly walked a significant distance, on feet punctured by the cross nails, to rejoin His disciples and declare Himself the risen Lord.
Serious scholars don’t support this theory because it fails to account for the known facts. Evidence, both historical and medical, argues against the possibility of survival. We have at least ten reasons to be confident that Jesus did, in fact, die on the cross:
~ The nature of His injuries. He was brutally whipped, beaten, and crowned with deep thorns, all of which resulted in enormous blood loss and tissue damage. He collapsed while carrying His cross beam (approximate weight to be believed around 100 pounds) to the crucifixion site.
~ The nature of crucifixion virtually guarantees death from asphyxiation. In an attempt to bolster their view, skeptics cite the historian Josephus, who describes an extremely rare case in which one person survived crucifixion, overlooking the fact that his account describes three crucifixion victims who were alive when taken down, but two of which died shortly thereafter, despite receiving excellent Roman medical care.
~ The piercing of Jesus’ side, from which came “blood and water” (John 19:34), indicating serum separated from clotted blood, gives medical evidence that Jesus had already died.
~ Jesus said He was in the act of dying while on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
~ The Roman soldiers, well trained executioners, were charged with making sure He was dead before taken off the cross. When they went to break Jesus’ legs, to hasten His death, they found Him already dead.
~ Pilate summoned the centurion to make sure Jesus was, indeed, dead before surrendering the body to Joseph for burial.
~ Jesus’ body was wrapped in about a hundred pounds of cloth and spices, and placed in a tomb that was sealed with a massive stone. From inside the tomb, Jesus would have had no way to leverage the stone to roll it away, let alone push it back enough to slip past it.
~ Medical experts who have studied the circumstances surrounding the end of Jesus’ life have concluded that He did actually die on the cross, most likely from a combination of factors: hypovolemic shock, exhaustion asphyxia, and even acute heart failure.
~ Christian historians from the 1st and 2nd centuries, such as Tacitus and Josephus, recorded Jesus’s death in their writings.
~ The earliest Christian writers after the time of Christ, such as Polycarp and Ignatius, verify that Jesus died on the cross.
In his article, A Lawyer Examines The Swoon Theory, Texas attorney Joseph “Rick” Reinckens satirically unpacks this theory. Just a snippet: “Jesus has been whipped, beaten and stabbed, is hemorrhaging, and hasn’t had any food or drink for at least three days. Does He just push the stone open enough to squeeze through? No, He pushes the stone door COMPLETELY out of the way!!!”
The theory asserts that Jesus got past the guards undetected — and then somehow traveled seven miles to Emmaus, to rejoin His disciples. Again, let’s look at Jesus’ physical condition, to decide if this sounds feasible:
~ Jesus would have had nothing to eat or drink for more than two days, as it has been over 48 hours since the Passover meal.
~ Jesus would have been severely dehydrated from losing massive amount of blood and fluids.
~ Jesus’ entire body would have been a pulpy mess, because of the severe beatings and scourging by the Roman guards.
~ The gaping wound in His side, from being pierced by the Roman guard’s sword, would have likely perforated a lung and/or Jesus’ heart.
~ Jesus crumpled under the weight of the crossbeam as He made His way to the crucifixion site. Yet now He manages to roll aside a tomb stone that scholars estimate weighed more than 400 pounds?
If Jesus had managed to get Himself to His disciples, are we to believe that they viewed Him, in His near-death state, to be their triumphant, risen Lord? And consider this: if Jesus had survived the crucifixion, why would His disciples create the idea of His resurrection? Would they not have thumbed their noses at Rome more by simply stating that Rome’s best efforts at torture were no limit to Jesus, the man and Messiah from Galilee?
If it crossed your mind that Jesus could have healed Himself in the tomb — as historical records tell us that He healed so many others — ask yourself why He would do so. If He didn’t die, His own predictions about Himself were untrue. If He didn’t die, His promises to us are, as Paul states, worthless.
The oldest of the naturalistic alternative theories, this theory comes in different forms. The first form is that the disciples stole the body from the sealed and guarded tomb, and conspired to teach that Jesus had resurrected. The second form is that grave robbers stole the body, and when Jesus’ disciples discovered the theft, they decided to tell everyone that He resurrected.
The great historian Eusebius (A.D. 314-318) was the first to argue that it is inconceivable that such a well-planned and thought-out conspiracy could succeed. Eusebius satirically imagined how the disciples might have motivated each other to take this route: Let us band together to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the sham even to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? Let us go out to all the nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! And even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.
Details of the Theory
This theory originates back to the time of the resurrection itself. It was first recorded by Matthew (28:11-55), when the chief priests told the Roman guards to concoct the story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body while they slept. (Hmm….how would they know that, if they were asleep?) Justin Martyr also recorded this early theory in his writings around AD 165, as does Tertullian, who was born in AD 150. One of the leading proponents of this theory today is mythicist Richard Carrier, who believes the resurrection to be an invention later adopted as church doctrine.
Richard Carrier’s Empty Tomb Hypothesis
Theory #1: Growth of a Later Legend
Carrier believes the most probable and plausible cause of the empty tomb story presented in the Gospels is that over time a legend grew that Jesus did, in fact, physically rise, not just spiritually. Carrier himself believes that Jesus was raised bodily, but that His earthly body continued to rot in its tomb. He also believes that Mark created the idea of the empty tomb, which Luke and Matthew then copied in their Gospels. Mark, he asserts, viewed the empty tomb as symbolic, not historic. He further asserts that several parallels exist between Mark’s gospel and Orphic doctrines, and that “Mark’s empty tomb story mimics the secret salvation narratives of the Orphic mysteries, substituting Jewish-Messianic eschatology for the pagan elements.”
Carrier also suggests that Mark employs a “Reversal of Expectation” motif. This is the idea that what the reader is expecting to happen in the narrative is suddenly reversed by the author in order to surprise and confound the audience. He states: The parables of Jesus are also full of the reversal of expectation theme, and Mark appears to agree with the program of concealing the truth behind parables. And so, the empty tomb is probably itself a parable, which accordingly employs a reversal of expectation as its theme. … This program leads him to “create” thematic events that thwart the reader’s expectation, and an empty tomb is exactly the sort of thing an author would invent to serve that aim.
First, the idea that the empty tomb is a late invention layered over the Christian system one or two generations later completely ignores the evidence that the church, from its inception, preached the risen Jesus. And this teaching took place in Jerusalem, the very site of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Theory #2: Theft
Carrier puts forth this second theory: that Jesus was put in the tomb on Friday, but that the Roman guards weren’t posted until Saturday morning, giving robbers or disciples plenty of time to steal Jesus’ body. He also suggests that the Roman guards quite possibly took two bribes — one from the robbers, and one from the Jewish leaders — after the guards reported the empty tomb.
Asserts Carrier: There is simply nothing improbable in an empty tomb being the result of theft, which then is linked with or even inspires (by leaving the suggestion of an ascension or escape in people’s minds), independent reports of appearances, especially appearances of a visionary kind, such as that which converted Paul.
The disciples were so terrified when Jesus was arrested, they scattered and went into hiding. Even Peter, who swore he would die with Jesus, if necessary, denied knowing Jesus three times. The theory that Jesus’ disciples (or someone else) stole the body fails, when we consider that the disciples were doing all they could to go radio silent.
Should we believe that they suddenly found the courage to not only steal Jesus’ body, but to then boldly go around telling their contemporaries that Jesus had resurrected? Though Jesus had told His disciples repeatedly that He must die and rise, a bodily resurrection was an entirely new concept for their Jewish thinking. They didn’t “get” it until the risen Jesus appeared and spent the next 40 days with them. Only then were they emboldened to grab their megaphones and lustily shout the good news — whatever the consequences.
Peter wasn’t convinced by the empty tomb. Neither was Mary, the first to reach it. She simply assumed His body had been moved. And we all know what it took to turn doubting Thomas into believing Thomas: placing his own hands on Jesus’ wounds. The Jewish leaders tacitly acknowledged that the tomb was empty. Why else would they have paid the Roman guards to make up the story about Jesus’ body being stolen?
And let’s not forget yet another clue that grave robbers didn’t take Jesus’ body: the left-behind grave cloths. Supposed body snatchers — whether disciples or unknown persons — would hardly have taken the time to unwrap Jesus’s body to leave the burial linens behind. Myrrh, one of the spices placed within the burial cloths, would have made removing the cloth extremely slow and tedious, as it would have cleaved to both the linens and Jesus’ body. What robber has time for that? Certainly not timid disciples. Jesus left the linens behind as a big, bold statement: I have resurrected!
Is it possible that people just thought they saw Jesus? Science has proved that hallucinations are entirely subjective, as they occur within individuals, not among groups of people. So how do we account for hundreds of people simultaneously seeing Jesus, and the 11 disciples interacting with Him as a group? We can definitely eliminate hallucination.
Says Peter Kreeft: “Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane. This one returned many times, to ordinary people. Five hundred separate Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred simple fishermen in Maine saw, touched, and talked with him at once, in the same town, that would be a different matter.”
Details of the Theory
The Hallucination Theory asserts that the many people who saw Jesus in His resurrected body just imagined doing so. Atheist and New Testament theologian Gerd Ludemann asserts that Peter’s vision was psychologically prompted. Peter, he says, saw a vision of Jesus because of his suffocating feelings of guilt, and his intense desire to have Jesus back and leading the disciples. As a result, states Ludemann, Peter “saw” Jesus and thus made it possible for the other disciples to “see” Jesus as well. He adds that Paul, feeling remorse for so viciously attacking the church, converted to Christianity with the same zeal after seeing an hallucination of Jesus. “Paul’s vision of seeing Christ was merely a dream,” says Ludemann, which, “reinforced by enthusiasm, was contagious and led to many more visions, until we have an ‘appearance’ to more than five hundred people.”
This theory, arguably the most widely held naturalistic theory for the resurrection, lacks the most evidence support for its case. Hallucinations are a poor explanation. Hallucinations do occur, but only to individuals. Because hallucinations are entirely subjective, multiple people do not simultaneously experience them. And persons experiencing a hallucination do not feel they have direct or voluntary control over the experience. We know from historical sources that the people who saw Jesus were in total control of their reaction to Him.
Philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli offer these reasons why the Hallucination Theory cannot be considered a reliable naturalistic explanation for the resurrection:
~ There were too many witnesses who saw Jesus — and at the time of Paul’s writing, he asserted that most of the 500 who saw Jesus were still alive, and could be questioned as to what they experienced. If untrue, Paul’s enemies would have called him out on this.
~ These witnesses are qualified sources. They had firsthand knowledge of the facts.
~ The 500 saw Christ together, at the same time and place. This is way more remarkable than 500 private “hallucinations” at different times and places.
~ Hallucinations last typically for a few seconds or minutes. This “hallucination” (Jesus) hung around for 40 days!
~ This “hallucination” (Jesus) returned many times, to ordinary people.
~ As we previously stated, hallucinations happen to individuals. They are not a shared experience.
~ When Jesus first appeared to His disciples, they thought He was a ghost. He had to eat something to prove He was not. The resurrected Christ ate with His disciples on at least two occasions.
~ Jesus allowed His disciples to touch him. Doing so helped the disciples to believe He was real, and not a “vision.”
~ His disciples saw the empty tomb for themselves. If Jesus’ body would have still been there, they would not have believed Him risen.
To suggest that early followers of Christ were duped into believing Jesus lived because of mass hysteria is crazy talk. People might get emotionally invested for a period, but to stick with a belief, they really have to believe it. Christianity has flourished because a real relationship with Christ produces just that: an ongoing connection that devoted Christians savor too much to forfeit.
Our Conclusion: Jesus Lives!
While a single alternate theory might be capable of explaining just one piece of evidence, none of the alternate theories can account for all the historical evidence that points to the truth of the resurrection. And simply stitching together various alternate theories fails to give skeptics what they want: a purely naturalistic explanation of the effects and facts.
Given all that we know about the resurrection as a historical event, we can have confidence that it also was a supernatural event that shook the very gates of hell. Skeptics can, and likely will, argue otherwise until they reach their last breath. But to anyone who has personally experienced Jesus, and chosen to accept Him as Lord, their arguments fall flat.
Christianity requires faith — but not blind faith. As we’ve shown you in the 21 blog posts we’ve posted so far in this year-long series, we can base our faith on the avalanche of historical evidence that serves to validate the claims of Christ, the Church, and the Bible.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.