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Considering Alternatives to the Resurrection
Since the heart of the Christian claim is that Jesus rose again from the dead (1Cor 15:1-17), let's take some time to think through other possible explanations.
THE SWOON THEORY
Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but simply fell into a coma. Later he revived in the tomb, and was later seen alive after his resurrection.
See the Journal of the American Medical Association article: “On The Physical Death of Jesus Christ” www.godandscience.org/apologetics/deathjesus.pdf. Also, see Dr. Thomas Miller’s book length treatment of this subject: Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead: A Surgeon-Scientist Examines the Evidence.
According to this hypothesis, the earliest reports about the risen Jesus would be complete fabrications. For example, he would not have been able to “stand” (Mt 28:9, Lk 24:36, Jn 20:26, 21:4), let alone “walk” (Lk 24:15, 50, Jn 21:13) so soon after his crucifixion. Reports of his “startling” the disciples by suddenly appearing in their midst (Lk 24:36, Jn 20:26), or immediately vanishing from their sight (Lk 24:31) would also be false and deceptive statements, along with all the reports of his ascension to heaven (Lk 24:50, Jn 20:17, Acts 1:2-11, 2:33-34, Eph 4:10, Heb 4:14, 1Pt 3:21-22).
Had Jesus’ recovered in the tomb, he would need to be carried away on a stretcher, but is it plausible that the soldiers guarding the tomb would allow Jesus’ followers to remove the body (whether dead or alive) from the tomb?
This view doesn’t account for the conversion of Jesus’ own family members. In John 7:5, we’re told that “not even his brothers believed in him,” and according to Mk 3:21, members of his family “went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” And yet, according to both Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1) and various passages in the NT (Acts 15:13, 21:18, 1Cor 15:7, Gal 1:19, 2:9, Jas 1:1), Jesus’ brother James ended up becoming one of the pillars of the Christian movement in Jerusalem before he was executed around 62 AD, which cries out for some kind of explanation (see also Acts 1:14 regarding the rest of Jesus’ family).
Paul was also a hostile witness, but this theory cannot account for his conversion which he claimed was rooted in a supernatural encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:1-7, 22:6-9, 26:9-19, 1Cor 15:8-9). Therefore, if the swoon theory is correct, we must dismiss Paul’s report as a fabrication, and provide a motive for his own perpetuation of this false account throughout the course of his life (as he faced beatings, imprisonments, and ultimately, execution).
How are we to explain the amazing correspondence between the predictions of the Hebrew prophets, and the events that later came to pass? For example, Isaiah not only foretold that Israel’s messiah would atone for sin (Is 53:5) by his own sacrificial death (Is 53:8-9) and triumphant resurrection (Is 53:10-12), but also that he would subsequently be worshipped by Gentiles around the world (Is 9:7, 11:10, 42:1, 6, 49:6, 52:10, 15, 60:3, 61:9, 62:2). Daniel predicted that the messiah would end up coming before the destruction of Jerusalem (Dan 9:24-27), and that he would set up a kingdom that would “fill the whole earth” (Dan 2:35) and which would “never be destroyed” (Dan 2:44). Surprisingly, all this came true with Jesus which, again, cries out for an explanation.
THE LOOKALIKE THEORY
Jesus died, but someone who looked like Jesus (perhaps his twin ?) later claimed he rose again from the dead. Alternatively, someone who looked like Jesus was perhaps killed in his place. A form of this view is actually presented in the Koran: “They never crucified him—they were made to think that they did” (Sura 4:157-158).
Thomas, who was called “the Twin” (Jn 11:16, 20:24, 21:2), refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he could see and touch Jesus’ wounds (Jn 20:24-30). In other words, likely because he had a twin brother of his own, he wanted to make sure that the one who had appeared to the other disciples actually bore the scars associated with crucifixion.
The theory doesn’t account for the conversion of Jesus own family members (who would presumably be able to distinguish Jesus from lookalikes, and would also be aware of a twin brother). This view also fails to account for Paul’s conversion or his supernatural encounter with Jesus.
By itself, this theory does not account for reports related to the empty tomb or Jesus’ ascension (without multiplying various hypotheses).
THE STOLEN BODY THEORY
Jesus really lived and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but sometime later, his disciples stole his body.
Though this is the oldest objection (Mt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho, 108), it only ends up providing an explanation for the empty tomb, while many other things are left unaccounted for, such as the various eyewitness reports of Jesus’ resurrection, and the conversion of hostile witnesses such as Paul and members of Jesus’ immediate family.
How exactly would the disciples have been able to steal the body from a well guarded tomb? (Mt 27:65). How are we to account for their motives, and why would they be willing to suffer a lifetime of persecution in order to perpetuate such a hoax?
Again, as with all these alternative theories, this view fails to account for the astonishing parallels between the life of Jesus and the writings of the Hebrew prophets (which became the primary focus of the apostles’ preaching and teaching from the earliest days of the church (Acts 2:22-36, 3:18-25, 8:28-35, 10:43, 13:27, 17:2-11, 18:28, 26:22-27, 28:23, Rom 1:1-2, 3:21-22, 1Cor 15:3-4, 1Pt 1:10-11).
THE MISPLACED BODY THEORY
Jesus body was placed in the wrong tomb. Thus, when the correct tomb was visited, the body appeared to be missing.
This theory simply doesn’t match the evidence. According to all four Gospel accounts, Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus in his own tomb (Mt 27:57-60, Mk 15:42-46, Lk 23:50-53, Jn 19:38-42), and many of Jesus’ female disciples witnessed the location of the burial site (Mt 27:60-61, Mk 15:46-47, Lk 23:55).
This tomb was also guarded by soldiers Mt 27:66.
Though this theory attempts to explain the empty tomb, it fails to account for the transformation of the disciples, the boldness of their proclamation in the face of persecution, or the conversion of hostile witnesses such as James and Paul. It also doesn’t explain the numerous eyewitness reports of Jesus’ resurrection, or accounts of his ascension to heaven.
THE HALLUCINATION THEORY
Jesus didn’t physically rise again from the dead, but the disciples believed that they had seen him again, either as a result of psychosis, wishful thinking, or some kind of drug induced frenzy.
This theory does not explain the empty tomb, the conversion of hostile witnesses, or the countless examples of fulfilled prophecy, etc.
As you read through the Gospel narratives, it’s clear that many of the disciples doubted, but eventually those doubts were resolved “through many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:1-3; cf. Mt 28:17, Mk 16:11, Lk 24:11, 41, Jn 20:24-28).
According to 1Corinthians 15, Christ’s appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time, which begs the question, “Did they all experience the same hallucination?” Paul quotes this creed at a time in which most of the witnesses were still living, and the original creed he cites actually goes back to the early or mid 30’s (for more information about this early Christian creed, click here).
THE EMBELLISHMENT THEORY
Jesus was a real historical figure, but the events of his life were not written down until much later, which by that time included numerous embellishments and exaggerations.
The creed cited by Paul in 1Cor 15 goes back to the mid to early 30s, and affirms belief in Jesus as Israel’s divine messiah, who died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. This clearly indicates that the core tenets of Christian doctrine did not develop over a long period but were present from the earliest days.
In light of the above, the empty tomb cannot be explained as a later embellishment. This theory also fails to account for why James became a leader of the early Christian movement which professed the divinity of his own brother.
Was Jesus famous or not? According to Mt 4:24-25, “Jesus’ fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick...and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” The word “crowd” occurs 144 times in the Gospels, and 35 times it appears with adjectives such as “great” or “large.” In one case “myriads of crowds” came to see Jesus which caused some to be trampled (Lk 12:1), and in Jn 12:19 the Pharisees say to one another, “Look how the world has gone after him.”If these reports were embellished and Jesus never really was famous for working wonders, why did so many Jews in first century Judea find his story compelling? Wouldn’t it be obvious that this was untrue?
See the 2nd Edition of Richard Bauckham’s widely acclaimed book Jesus & The Eyewitnesses (particularly his concluding chapter, “The End of Form Criticism”). See also John A.T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament, and Jonathan Bernier’s Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament, for compelling arguments that all four Gospels (as well as all other NT documents) were written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
FOR FURTHER STUDY & REFLECTION
To watch a lecture on this topic by Cambridge New Testament scholar, Peter J. Williams click here. To see his presentation, “New Evidence the Gospels Were Based on Eyewitness Accounts,” click here, and to see his debate with Bart Ehrman, click here.
If you’re interested in a scholarly presentation of this subject from a Christian perspective, I’d recommend N.T. Wright’s, The Resurrection of the Son of God. For a non-Christian perspective, see Geza Vermes’, The Resurrection: History & Myth.
For more information about the early Christian creed from 1 Corinthians 15, listen to: The Gospel Creed. For more information about seeing the Jesus story as a myth that essentially evolved over time, listen to: The Jesus of History, Faith Founded on Fact (1), and Faith Founded on Fact (2).
If you find it difficult to sort through the differences in the resurrection narratives, I’d recommend John Wenham’s book Easter Enigma. I also discussed this topic with Dr. Lydia McGrew here.
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Here are additional texts from all four Gospel accounts that demonstrate Jesus’ fame during his lifetime: Mt 1:28–45, 8:1, 9:31, 13:2, Mt 14:21, 15:38, 16:9-10, 19:2, 20:29, Mk 3:7-8, 4:1, 5:19-24, Mk 6:44, 8:9, 9:14, 10:46, Lk 5:15, 6:17, 7:11, Lk 9:14-21, 8:4, 14:25, 23:27, Jn 6:2-15, 7:31, 12:9-12.