Elon, North Carolina
Can the Resurrection of Jesus be explained naturally? I would like to examine with you several classic non-miraculous explanations of the resurrection. We will critique each one. This is not original to me. What I am going to share with you is very well known in apologetic circles but not everyone is familiar with this information.
Explanation #1: Jesus did not die on the cross
The apparent death theory says that Jesus did not really die on the cross. This view was more common in the 18th and 19th century than it is today but, even today, this theory is not dead. If you think that no one really believes this today, you are wrong. The author of The Passover Plot (1965) held this view. Many Muslims believe this as well. The Koran says that Jesus did not die on the cross. Surah 4:157 of the Koran says:
“That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’ but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not.”
This explanation says that Jesus just loss consciousness and fainted, due to the loss of blood. This is usually called the swoon theory. To swoon is to faint. This theory says that Jesus fainted on the cross. People thought he was dead and took him down from the cross. While he was in the cool tomb, the healing ointments and strong scented spices, helped to revive him. When he appeared to his disciples, they were so stupid that they thought he rose from the dead.
There are a couple reasons why people might believe this theory. This did happen in the ancient world. It was rare but it did happen. Keep also in mind that Jesus was only on the cross for six hours. When people were crucified, they did not die quickly. It normally took two to three days for one to die by crucifixion. Crucifixion was a slow painful death by asphyxiation or suffocation. The victim stayed on the cross until he was unable through sheer exhaustion to push himself up to breathe. The Romans often sped up the process by breaking the legs of the victim with a mallet.
This would prevent the person from pushing himself up to breathe. It was a humane way of shortening the agony of crucifixion. Interestingly, he NT tells that Jesus’ bones were NOT broken on the cross (John 19:30). One top of this, the Bible says that Jesus uttered a LOUD voice just before he died (Matthew 27:46, 50; John 19:30). Some would say that this proves that his strength was far from exhausted.
This theory look pretty good on the surface but there are some problems with it, big problems. As you will see, it takes far more faith to believe this theory than it does to believe in the resurrection of Christ.
Problems With the Swoon Theory
Jesus should have been killed from his wounds. The heavy loss of blood makes death highly probable. According to the Roman Centurion who oversaw the crucifixion, he was dead (Mark 15:43-45). For more information on the medical aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion, you can read a study that was done by the Mayo Clinic. There was another study done by the American Medical society in 1986. His hands and feet were pierced. His back was beaten with a whip with lead balls and sheep bones tied into leather thongs. Many people died from the scourging alone.
His side was pierced with a spear. He had a spear wound to the chest, which many physicians believe would have entered his heart and punctured his pericardium, a sac of water around the heart, because John 19:34 says that when they did this to Jesus blood and water came out. This shows that Jesus’ lungs had collapsed. Even if Jesus was still just alive after the crucifixion, he would not have been alive long. Then Jesus is buried and goes without food and medical care the rest of Friday to Sunday. Let’s say that he somehow survived this. Stranger things have happened.
The Grave Clothes
Jesus would then have had to untangle the grave clothes. Jesus was wrapped in pieces of cloth and covered with 75 to 100 pounds of spices (John 19:39-40).
There was a heavy stone at the entrance of the tomb that weighed one to two tons. All of the Gospel writers mention this. The women couldn’t move it and even if Jesus had survived crucifixion by some miracle, he would have been unable to move the stone by himself. A half-dead swooning man could not have moved it. Who moved the heavy stone? Even if by some miracle, Jesus was able to push the stone out of the way and get out, he had another problem.
The tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers. How could an unarmed swooning corpse overpower all of the Roman guards? Let’s say somehow he was able to do this. That leads us to our next problem.
If Jesus was able to crawl out of the tomb half dead, walking on pierced feet and appear to his disciples after surviving the scourging, crucifixion, without food or water for several days, what would have been their reaction? They would have felt sorry for him and tried to give him medical attention. They would not get the impression that he raised from the dead. Instead they would think that he somehow miraculously survived death but never died.
Had Jesus been able to somehow get past this problem and convinced his disciples that he had indeed raised from the dead when he had merely swooned, this would only make Jesus a deceiver and an impostor This is not what proponents of the swoon theory believe. This is not what Islam teaches about Jesus.
But, even if we get past all of these problems, we have one more problem and it is this. What happened to the body of Jesus? Advocates of this theory have no answer. They have to believe that he survived the crucifixion, made some appearances for forty days and then just completely disappeared and vanished without explanation.
Explanation #2: Jesus was not the one who died on the cross
A second explanation is called The Substitution Theory. It is a widely held view in the Muslim world today. According to this view, Jesus was not the one who died on the cross. Advocates of this view believe that God caused someone else to appear to be Jesus and that a substitute died in his place. God would never have stood by watching while his enemies crucified his Son. One day you might encounter someone who actually believes this. How would you answer this view? What are some problems with this view?
Problems with the Substitution Theory
The Judas Factor
There is no room in the narrative for a substitute because of the Judas factor. One of Jesus’ own Apostles turn Jesus in and he is in custody until his death. There is no doubt that they got the right man, since he was turned in by a disgruntled apostle and identified by a kiss. There is no time for anyone to take his place.
Implications for God
What does this theory make God out to be? The substitution theory makes God out to be the source of the greatest deception in religious history. It makes God out to be a deceiver. According to this interpretation, God deceived mankind into thinking that Jesus was crucified when in fact he wasn’t? Even Jesus’ mother, family members and closest followers were deceived into thinking Jesus died on the cross, according to this theory. It makes God the author of the biggest hoax in history. It is wrong about God.
Implications for Jesus
What does it make Jesus out to be? A false teacher. Jesus was the one who said that he would be killed (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). This theory makes Jesus out to be a deceiver as well. It is wrong about Jesus.
Implications for Salvation
What does this theory think of the cross? The cross is seen as a bad thing, not as the means of salvation for the world. This view says that God would never have stood by watching while his enemies crucified his Son. God planned the crucifixion. Not only did God allow the cross, He actually planned it. It was his will for Jesus to suffer on the cross (Isaiah 53:10). As Peter said in the NT Jesus was killed, not only by wicked hands, but by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It is wrong about the cross.
Explanation #3: The Body of Jesus was Stolen
This was the earliest explanation of the resurrection (Matthew 28:12-15). That was the official Jewish response to the resurrection. There are two basic elements of this theory. First, this theory says that the disciples stole the body of Jesus (Theft Theory). Second, the same disciples then went out and preached that Jesus rose from the dead, a deliberate fabrication, according to this theory, which they knew to be false (Conspiracy Theory).
Before we look at some problems with this theory, I want to ask this question. Who could have possibly have wanted to steal the body of Jesus? If anyone would have stolen the body who would it have been? The Jews would not have stolen the body of Jesus. They asked the Romans to guard it so it was not stolen. The Romans would not have stolen it.
There was a Roman seal on the tomb and Roman guards, professional soldiers assigned to guard the tomb against theft. They had opportunity but no motive. The only ones who would have possibly stolen it were the Christians. The argument goes that they stole the body to make it look like Jesus rose from the dead. The questions is, Did they do that? The answer is no. There are several reasons the disciples did not steal the body to prove the resurrection.
Problems with the Theft Theory
The disciples did not even believe in the resurrection. The Apostles did not believe in the resurrection when Jesus announced it beforehand (cf. Luke 18:31-34). They did not believe it afterwards when the women told them about it. They thought they were crazy (Luke 24:11). The disciples had no motive to steal the body, since they did not understand that Jesus was going to rise from the dead. The women went to the tomb carrying spices early Sunday morning to anoint a dead body (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1).
Even if they did understand this, there is no evidence that they had the courage to do this (the timid Galileans were in hiding from fear). Nor is there any evidence that they had the opportunity to do this. The tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers.
The claim is that the soldiers were sleeping when they stole the body. It is unlikely that they were sleeping on the job. It was an offense punishable by death for Roman soldiers to sleep on the job. If they were sleeping, how do they know for sure that the disciples stole the body? Even if they were sleeping, it is a little unlikely that they could have moved the stone and stolen the body without waking anyone up.
The Grave Clothes
John adds an important detail. He says that the body of Jesus was gone but his grave clothes were left in the tomb (John 20:5-7). If they did steal the body, they would have taken everything. They would not have stolen the body completely naked. They would have been in a hurry that that would be dishonoring to the body.
Even if you can explain all of these problems, you have to assume that the early Christians were simply liars and impostors They were willing to risk being arrested, tortured and killed, beheaded or fed to lions for something that they know to be false. Is it possible that they did this? It is possible but highly unlikely. People die for a lie all the time. Look at all of the Muslim terrorist who blow themselves up for a lie but they don’t know it is a lie.
History has shown that people WILL give their lives for what they believe is true, but not for what they know is false. This theory has the early Christians dying for something that they know to be false. That involves a psychological miracle. Whatever else you can say about the early Christians, they were not dishonest people. They gave the world some of the highest ethical and moral teaching it has ever known.
This theory has no explanation for the appearances. It is one thing to claim that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. That might explain the empty tomb but it doesn’t explain any of the appearances of Jesus.
Explanation #4: The Apostles just thought they saw Jesus
This is called the Hallucination theory. The appearances are simply visual hallucinations, induced by a state of excitement and pious enthusiasm. They imagined that they saw and spoke with him. What are some problems with this theory?
Problems with the Hallucination Theory
The Empty Tomb
It doesn’t explain the empty tomb at all, just the appearances. If they just saw hallucinations, then what happened to the body of Jesus? Why is the tomb empty? This theory has no explanation. If the apostles had hallucinated and then spread their hallucinogenic story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing the body but they couldn’t do this, because the tomb was empty.
Hallucinations occur in people who are anticipating or on expecting something to take place. The disciples did NOT expect Jesus to rise. The women’s first thought on seeing the tomb open was NOT that Jesus had risen, but that the authorities had moved the body. Faith in the resurrection did NOT create the appearances because the women who went to the tomb didn’t have any faith in the resurrection. They were expecting to find a dead body to anoint.
When the women told the disciples about the resurrection, they didn’t believe them. They thought they were crazy. In fact, so far from anticipating and imaging that they were seeing Jesus, some who saw him did not even recognize him at first. Two disciples walked seven miles, talking to Jesus, and they didn’t know who he was (Luke 24:13-16). This is very interesting. Why did Jesus disguise who he was for these seven miles? Jesus wanted these two disciples to learn what the Scriptures taught FIRST before he revealed to them who he was.
Their eyes were not opened as to who he was (24:31) until he had first opened their Scriptures to them (24:32). Jesus didn’t want their faith to be based just on experience but on the Scriptures. In John 21, seven disciples went fishing. Jesus began talking to them and they didn’t recognize him at first (John 21:1-13). Of course, he was also a hundred yards away. There is a good application from that story.
The application is that should not trust ourselves. They had fished all night and caught nothing. What did Jesus say? Without me you can do NOTHING (John 15:5). They didn’t just fail, they worked hard and failed and they failed in the area that they had some expertise. They felt proficient in this area. These men were professional fishermen. They knew how to fish. They worked hard and saw no results (cf. Psalm 127:1).
Hallucinations usually occur in only certain types of people. They occur in people who are mentally or emotionally unstable (paranoid or schizophrenic individuals). Jesus didn’t just appear to a few impressionable or hysterical women. He appeared to many different types of people. He appeared not only to Mary Magdalene who had seven demons in her at one time (Luke 8:13) but also to some rugged fishermen and tax collectors. He appeared to Paul who was highly educated.
Hallucinations tend to be individual, private and personal. They are subjective rather than collective. Hallucinations are linked in an individual’s subconscious. No two persons will experience the same hallucination. Jesus appeared to groups of people, as well as to individuals. Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once (I Corinthians 15:6). This is even more remarkable than five hundred private “hallucinations” at different times and places of the same Jesus. Five hundred separate Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred people saw, touched and talked with him in the same town at the same time, that would be a different matter. It is impossible for five hundred people to have the same hallucination simultaneously.
Hallucinations do not eat (John 21:1-14; Luke 24:30). They had breakfast waiting on them. The Lord Jesus made breakfast and was waiting for them on the shore. Visions and hallucinations do not make breakfast. The disciples not only saw Jesus, they heard him, walked with him, touched him and even ate with him. He cooked for them.
It also doesn’t explain why the appearances all stopped after forty days. If they were just hallucinations, why didn’t they continue?
Explanation #5: The Resurrection is a Myth
Perhaps the most popular theory against the resurrection today among skeptics and secular humanists is the view that the resurrection is a myth. It is just a legend that developed and evolved over time. They would argue that the worship of a dying and rising god comes from paganism (Tammuz in Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, Attis in Asia Minor, and Osiris in Egypt). This was propounded by Sir James Frazer, who gathered a mass of parallels in his monumental work The Golden Bough (1906, reprinted in 1961).
Is the resurrection a myth, just like the pagan gods Horus, Mithras, and Osiris? Did Christianity just borrow from pagan mystery religions? No. Modern biblical scholars have soundly refuted this which was more popular a hundred years ago.
Problems with the Myth Theory
Neither Horus, Mithras, and Osiris were historical persons. Jesus was. We can prove that he actually lived. He is mentioned by three secular historians in the first century. Two was Roman (Tacitus, Suetonius) and one was Jewish (Josephus) and none of them were even Christian. Jesus’ life and death were actual events in history. Since the pagan gods were not real persons, never really lived, never really died, they never really rose from the dead. In addition, none of the so-called pagan savior gods died for anyone else and they did not die for sin. That is a uniquely Christian belief.
The Empty Tomb
If the resurrection of Christ is all a myth, then why is the tomb empty? The resurrection was preached by the early Christians in the very city in which Jesus was killed only a few weeks after his death. It would have been very easy to disprove that message by the enemies of Christianity had the tomb not been empty.
The Eye Witnesses
The fact that there were all kinds of eye-witnesses to the event is evidence that the event is not a myth. When Paul wrote the Book of I Corinthians fifteen or twenty years later, many of the eye-witnesses were still alive and could be interviewed (15:6).
Internal Evidences of Authenticity
1) The Appearance to Women
It is interesting to me who was the first person that Jesus appeared to after he rose from the dead. He appeared FIRST to Mary Magdalene when she was by herself (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-18). Mary had already been to the tomb two times. The second appearance of Jesus was to a group of women (Matthew 28:8-10). Jesus appeared to the women first, NOT to Peter or the Apostles, even though the Apostles were the foundation of the church. That is very significant. Why?
In the ancient world women were not legal witnesses. They could not testify in court. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, said, “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex”. Anyone who would try to make up a story of the resurrection in the first century would not have women to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. Their testimony was considered worthless. That is evidence that the story is genuine and that the Gospels are historical.
2) Presence of Variations in the Narrative
The fact that we have four Gospels, not one and the fact that they are very different from one another is further evidence that the resurrection story is not a myth. How many women went to the tomb? Was it one (John), two (Matthew), three (Mark) or more (Luke)? Did they go when it was dark (John) or light (Mark)? Was the stone rolled away before they got there (Mark, Luke, John) or after (Matthew? Did they meet the angels inside the tomb (Mark, Luke, John) or outside the tomb (Matthew)? Were the angels sitting (Matthew, Mark, John) or standing (Luke)?
Did Mary Magdalene see an angel on her first trip to her tomb (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or did she not see an angel (John)? Did Peter learn about the resurrection (Luke) or just the empty tomb (John) from the women? Did the angels tell the women to go to Galilee (Matthew, Mark) or to stay in Jerusalem (Luke)? If anyone would want to make up the story of the resurrection, they would want to deliberately avoid any contradictions.
In a real court case, different witnesses would not describe the same incident in exactly the same way. If they did, one might think that there is a conspiracy. Minor variations in the story are not necessarily contradictions. They are actually evidence that the narrative is truthful. None of the four Gospels were interested in giving a complete history of everything that happened that morning.
 B.B. Warfield, “The Risen Jesus,” http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/bbwrisenjesus.htm
 Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 75; Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars vii, 194.