In this post we examine and debunk three resurrection theories developed by skeptics.
Few skeptics deny the essential events — the trial, the crucifixion, the burial, the guards, the Roman seal, and the empty tomb — because historical evidence strongly supports them. Instead, they focus on suggesting that these events don’t mean that a dead man came back to life. Their attitude can be summed up as, “There has to be some other explanation.”
Some critics have suggested that the apostles only convinced themselves they saw visions of Jesus because they were mentally distraught over His death. Others speculate that people were able to interact with Jesus after His crucifixion because He hadn’t really died. Still others postulate that Jesus’ disciples made up the resurrection, just because they could. Let’s examine, in more detail, these resurrection theories to see if they hold any merit.
The Swoon Theory (also called the Resuscitation Theory)
The Swoon Theory, first proposed in 1828 by H. E. G. Paulus, a German theologian and critic of the Bible, claims that Jesus did not die. Rather, suggested Paulus, Jesus merely fainted on the cross, from pain, shock, and loss of blood. Jesus was then mistakenly buried alive.
Let’s back up a second and go over the known historical facts of the resurrection:
>> Jesus was beaten to bloody shreds by the whip used by the Roman guards.
>> Jesus was so weak after His torture that He couldn’t carry the patibulum of His cross to the crucifixion site.
>> Jesus had spikes driven through His wrists and feet and hung bleeding for six hours.
>> The Romans thrust a spear deep into Jesus’ side, confirming beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.
>> Jesus was prepared for burial according to exacting Jewish custom. His body was encased in wrapped linen and spices.
>> Jesus was then entombed, and a massive, heavy rock was rolled across the tomb entrance.
>> A unit of highly trained Roman guards vigilantly guarded the entrance — knowing they would be punished if Jesus’ body disappeared.
The Swoon Theory suggests that the cool, damp air of the tomb somehow revived Jesus after three days and He decided to exit. Despite not having access to desperately needed medical care and nourishment, Jesus supposedly managed to unwrap His dressings and then, in the total darkness of the tomb, locate and roll away the mammoth stone sealing the tomb entrance. And then, still unnoticed by the guards, Jesus supposedly walked away, on feet punctured by the cross nails, to rejoin His disciples. The most significant problem with this theory is that it greatly underestimates the severity of Jesus’ wounds. Historical sources confirm that Jesus was horribly tortured—and confirmed dead by several sources before He was removed from the cross.
In his article A Lawyer Examines The Swoon Theory, Texas attorney Joseph “Rick” Reinckens unpacks this theory. A snippet of his must-read: “Even in His weakened condition, in a quiet private cemetery, Jesus manages to push back the stone door without any of the guards noticing! Why go half-way? 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!!!”
Adds J. Hampton Keathley, III, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a pastor: “If Christ had only swooned, He still would have still been half dead. A great deal of time would have been needed for recuperation. In His weakened condition He could not have walked the seven miles on the Emmaus road. It would have been impossible for someone who had only resuscitated from the agonies the Lord endured with the beatings and crucifixion to so quickly give the impression that He was the Conqueror of death and the grave, the Prince of Life.”
Could the Roman soldiers have been asleep? Is that how Jesus supposedly made His sneaky escape?
Peter Kreeft, a popular writer of Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics, says no way: “The story the Jewish authorities spread, that the guards fell asleep and the disciples stole the body is unbelievable. Roman guards would not fall asleep on a job like that; if they did, they would lose their lives. And even if they did fall asleep, the crowd and the effort and the noise it would have taken to move an enormous boulder would have wakened them.”
This resurrection theory only works if we ignore facts. We can cross it off the list of possibility.
The Hallucination Theory
The Hallucination Theory asserts that the many people who saw Jesus in His resurrected body just imagined doing so. It’s important to note that hallucinations come from within a person, not outside a person. Meaning hallucinations are entirely subjective.
Science tells us that, generally, only particular kinds of people have hallucinations: persons who are paranoid or schizophrenic, or people under the influence of drugs. The New Testament tells us, however, that all kinds of people saw Jesus after His resurrection. Different ages, different occupations, different backgrounds, different viewpoints.
Dr. Gary Habermas observes: “These different individuals in each of these circumstances would all be candidates for hallucinations really stretches the limits of credibility.”
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.”
Adds Dr. Michael Licona, a professor of theology: “Hallucinations are like dreams. They are private occurrences … You could not share an hallucination you were having with someone any more than you could wake up your spouse in the middle of the night and ask him or her to join you in a dream you were having.”
Hallucinations do not cause people to change or create new beliefs. The fact that many people chose to believe in Jesus, after talking with Him and touching His wounds, also helps to refute this theory. Hallucinations are an individual event. If 500 people have the same hallucination, that’s a bigger miracle than the resurrection.
We can cross this resurrection theory off the list of possibility as well.
The Conspiracy Theory
The fact that the Bible tells us that lots of people saw Jesus, over a 40-day period, helps us to debunk this final theory. The Conspiracy Theory suggests that Christ’s disciples simply stole His body and fabricated the resurrection story.
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.”
Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal in the 1960s, knows full well how difficult it is to keep a conspiracy together. Says Colson:
“I know how impossible it is for a group of people, even some of the most powerful in the world, to maintain a lie. The Watergate cover-up lasted only a few weeks before the first conspirator broke and turned state’s evidence.”
Adds Paul E. Little, author of Know What You Believe: “Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.”
We can cross this resurrection theory off the list of possibility.
Isn’t it interesting that people are able to believe a theory full of holes, but are unable to believe the truth! Jesus’ disciples — though they faced horrendous persecution and all but one was martyred — never renounced their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s because they knew the resurrection to be true. We can trust the radical transformation of Jesus’ early followers, because we can clearly see the Holy Spirit in action today working to transform our lives, as well.
Take the Easter Challenge: with whom can you share God’s amazing love? Can you invite someone to church on Easter Sunday? Who might you influence to get to know Jesus personally?