Summary: A historical defense of the Resurrection account.
Note: This is the second article in a series on the Resurrection of Jesus.
PREMISE: God raised Jesus from the dead.
PURPOSE OF ARTICLE: To find the most historically suitable theory to explain the facts of the Resurrection narrative.
We established in the first article that Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb that was later found empty. However, these facts alone do not conclusively prove that the Resurrection actually occurred. There are many theories that fit these facts, and we must consider each one before drawing a conclusion.
1. The Swoon Theory
According to the swoon theory, Jesus did not really die but merely swooned on the cross and revived in the tomb, later appearing to his disciples. This argument has been easily refuted by reputable scholars.1
Roman executioners were always charged, on pain of death, with ensuring the death of their victims. Jesus was verifiably stabbed with a spear that resulted in the collapse of his heart.2 He would have been wrapped according to Jewish burial customs, and if there was any life in him, it would have been extinguished immediately by the strong wrapping spices.
He was also buried in a cave-like tomb, as established in the previous article. Bishop E. LeCamus of La Rochelle, France, said that “a man in a swoon is not revived ordinarily by being shut up in a cave, but by being brought out into the open air. The strong odour of aromatics in a place hermetically sealed would have killed a sick person whose brain was already seized with the most unyielding swoon.”
There is no possible way that a resuscitated Jesus could have walked many miles on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) with a spear wound to his side. There is no possible way that he could have appeared to the twelve disciples and more than five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) while giving them the illusion that he had physically resurrected.
Most importantly, a resuscitated Jesus would have been an uninspiring Messiah. In the words of German theologian David Strauss, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment…and who still at last 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…”3 In other words, even if Jesus had swooned, he would have been such a pitiful sight when presenting himself to the disciples that they would have never started a religion based on him.
2. The Stolen Body Theory
A second theory is that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and later claimed that he had risen from the dead. This theory is hardly novel. In fact, it appears in the Gospel of Matthew as a story fabricated by the high priests to explain the empty tomb (Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-15).
There are two common arguments against the stolen body theory. The first is that guards at the tomb would never have allowed such a theft to occur, and the second is that the disciples, most of whom were later martyred in horrific ways, would not have died for a fabricated story of their own making.
While these are compelling arguments, they are useless in the minds of most skeptics. In a 1984 paper, William Lane Craig says that “Matthew’s account [about guards at the tomb] has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics,” a legend designed to make the stealing of the body seem impossible and to explain the origins of the stolen body theory.4 Regarding the second rebuttal, skeptics contend that the accounts of the disciples’ martyrdoms come from the Apocryphal Acts and are highly unreliable church traditions written to validate Christianity. Also, the fact that people die for their beliefs does not necessarily validate those beliefs.
Perhaps a different approach would work better. Imagine, for a moment, that Jesus was laid in a tomb, and that this tomb was not guarded. Imagine that the disciples were never martyred but instead died peaceful deaths. Even if these things were true, the disciples were all Jewish men who were aware of Deuteronomy 21:23: “a hanged man is cursed by God.” Would these men (who believed in the coming judgment) have faked the Resurrection and initiated the worship of a man who may have been cursed by God, thus incurring the wrath of God upon themselves? What possible gain would be worth such consequences?
3. The Hallucination Theory
Another theory is that the twelve disciples hallucinated Jesus’ appearances. There are many reasons why this theory does not work.
According to the oral formula and subsequent verses in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9 (reviewed in the previous article), Paul claims that more than five hundred people saw Jesus at the same time. He then states that many of them are still alive as he writes, as if to invite skeptics to question these witnesses. Given that Paul was a major player in the early church and had many enemies who could have used these so-called witnesses to bring him down, this is an audacious claim. To say that three people, let alone five hundred, hallucinated about the same person at the same time is ridiculous from a medical and psychological perspective.
Furthermore, in the incredibly authentic account of Luke 24:36-43, the disciples are portrayed as consistently doubting, even when Jesus appears in front of them! In fact, it is not until he eats a fish that they believe. Therefore, they had no predisposition to believe and probably would not have been tricked by a hallucination.
Clinical psychologist Gary A. Sibcy commented, “I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.”5
And, most critics forget that, as C.S. Lewis astutely observes, a hallucination would explain only the post-Resurrection appearances.6 It would not explain the empty tomb, the rolled-away stone, or the inability to produce the corpse.
4. The Legend Theory
Scholars often fault C.S. Lewis’ trilemma argument (Liar, Lunatic, or Lord) for omitting the possibility of “Legend”. Indeed, according to historian Michael Licona in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, “[Bart] Ehrman complains that all of the canonical Gospels were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus and that Jesus does not appear in any non-canonical pagan source until 80 years after his death.”
But Licona goes on to say: “when compared with written sources of other historical figures and events, thirty-five sixty-five years is a relatively short period…The Roman emperor Tiberius was a contemporary of Jesus. The number of non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius within 150 years of his life is equal to the number of non-Christian sources who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life. If we add Christian sources, the Jesus:Tiberius ratio goes from 9:9 to at least 42:10.”7 This subject will be given extended treatment in future articles.
5. The Twin Theory
The twin theory argues that Jesus had a twin brother who impersonated him after his death and appeared to the disciples, convincing them that he was the risen Lord. This is absurd because it assumes that the disciples (and the other witnesses mentioned by Paul) were so naïve that they could not tell a man apart from his twin.
A twin would not have the same voice, gait, psychological makeup, or form of speech, and remember that the disciples had lived with Jesus for three years; they ate together, slept in the same places, and walked and learned together. Would you mistake your best friend for his twin?
How was it that this twin was never seen before around Nazareth, a very small town? Where did he get nail prints in his hands and feet (John 20:27)? If he were secluded from society, how is it that he knew enough about Jesus and his doctrine to impersonate him? This theory makes little sense and defies Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest explanation is often the correct one.
Other loose ends are tied up quite easily. Those who say that Jesus could have never been raised from the dead because he would have been consumed by maggots are attacking a straw man argument. Christians believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and thus the supernatural aspect of the Resurrection means that the laws of nature do not necessarily apply (though in this case, they almost always do and correlate with historical attestation). Philosopher David Hume argues that any natural explanation is better than attributing an event to miracle, but in this case, any other explanation is less trustworthy than the supernatural explanation.
More than two thousand years ago, something happened to change the course of time. We have already proven through historical analysis that the facts of this story can be generally trusted. Today, we have demonstrated, to a reasonable degree of certainty, that the only possible explanation for these facts is that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.
 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Print. Edwards, William D. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Jama 255.11 (1986): 1455. Web.  Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus for the People. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. London: Williams and Norgate, 1879. Print.  Craig, William Lane. “The Guard at the Tomb.” New Testament Studies 30.02 (1984): 273. Web.  Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.  Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Print.  Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.
Such is the sovereignty of God. He used the very enemies of Christ to strengthen the case for the resurrection, the very event that would show the world who was the true Authority. The Romans with all their political and military dominance, their overwhelming control of daily events and their harsh code of military discipline and the Jewish Sanhedrin with their lock on religious power in the center of the Jewish world only makes the case of the resurrection so much stronger as this is the last thing they would would have wanted to see happen. And they threw all… Read more »
Amen, Nate! When God wants to show the world something, nothing gets in His way. He is indeed sovereign! Thank you for the encouraging words, and I hope you enjoy our future releases.