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We take a look at four theories regarding Jesus' 'supposed' resurrection from the dead.
The central event of the New Testament is the resurrection. In fact, the twenty-seven books that constitute the New Testament Canon are all the product of resurrection faith. Without the resurrection, neither the New Testament nor the Church would exist.
Due to Christ’s resurrection playing such an important part in the Christian Creed, it is by no means strange that various agnostics and atheists have called the whole ordeal of the resurrection into question.
Even within the walls of twentieth-century Protestantism, several important theological voices expressed their doubts concerning Jesus’ literal spatiotemporal resurrection e.g. Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer.
Today then, we are going to take a look at the three most commonly quoted arguments against the veracity of Christ’s resurrection to see whether or not there are good reasons to keep confessing that, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Theory #1: The Robbery Theory
The first theory, elaborated in the eighteenth century (although first advanced in the days following the resurrection), asserts that Jesus’ corpse was robbed by His disciples. The idea at work is that the Twelve came to some sort of agreement to hide His body and then proclaim that He had overcome death.
However, if that is what really happened then we would have to believe that the apostles invented a completely fictitious story for which they were prepared to give their lives. If the resurrection was a fable surely some of the disciples in the apostolic group would have renounced their lie when they were about to be put to death for their unshakable faith.
Christ’s disciples were pious Jews who had been well-versed in the principles of the Mosaic Law from the childhood. They knew perfectly well what God thought about robbing and bearing false witness. Moreover, in their apostolic writings, they exhort their readers to be holy children of light and to separate from the deceit of the flesh. Could such writers conjure up a completely false doctrine?
At any rate, this theory forgets that the disciples were in no state to dream up a religious master plan. They were completely despondent, dejected and downcast. Their very lives were in danger.
Their leader had just been crucified by the Roman authorities and for all they knew they could have been the next targets on Pilate’s hit-list. Would those men have risked their lives in an attempt to go fetch Jesus out of the tomb knowing that it was swarming with Roman guards?
For talk’s sake, let us say that they really did decide to rob Jesus’ body. How on earth could they have removed the tombstone without waking up the Roman soldiers? If they went to the tomb by day, they would have been spotted.
But if they went by night, they would have needed torches to get there. But again, if they used torches, the Romans would have seen them straight away.
A final criticism that can be levelled against this first theory is that the disciples did not think that Jesus was going to resurrect. Although the Old Testament and Christ Himself prophesied continually of His coming resurrection, the disciples still did not see things clearly.
As good Jews, they most assuredly believed in the end-time resurrection on the Great Day of the Lord; but they sure did not expect an intra-historical resurrection as in the case of Jesus. They could never have made up such a message because it went against everything they believed.
The Robbery Theory, having been weighed in the balances, has been found wanting.
Theory #2: The Fainting Theory
The second major theory, which came about in the nineteenth century, proposed that Christ did not really die upon the cross. He merely fainted. He by no means died. That explains why He was able to rise in the tomb.
This theory is quite problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Roman soldiers crucified about 30,000 criminals in Jesus’ time. They knew for certain when someone was dead. The Gospel specifies that the Roman soldiers did not bother to break Christ’s legs because they saw how He was already dead. A soldier pierced His side and out flowed blood and water. In clinical terms, this is a clear portrayal of Jesus’ death. The red and white blood cells had separated. Jesus was medically dead.
This is no surprise. As we consider what Jesus had gone through during His violent Passion, it is not difficult to realize why He had died so soon on the cross. Not only do we recall His brutal crucifixion and the agonizing crown of thorns upon His head, but there was the intensity of Gethsemane, the savage treatment He received before the Jewish Council following His midnight arrest, the excruciating flogging by the Romans, the draining journeys between Herod and Pilate and the unbearable cross-bearing walk to Golgotha. The only thing that should startle Gospel readers is why Christ did not die sooner.
But even if we were to take the Fainting Theory seriously, it still proves to be intellectually dissatisfying because even if Jesus really did wake up in the tomb and escaped, how did He manage to do so?
Firstly, if He opened His eyes in the tomb, He would not have been able to move an inch due to His embalming. If He was not dead before being placed in the tomb, He would have suffocated after being so tightly embalmed. And as if that was not a big enough problem, Josué Ferrer –a Spanish apologist- reminds us that Jews used poison to embalm dead bodies as well!
Secondly, if Jesus did not suffocate, where could He have found the strength to free Himself from His bandages? He had been flogged and crucified. He would not have had an ounce of strength within His body.
Thirdly, even if He did manage to take off the bandages, how would He have known how to escape from the tomb? He did not know He was in a tomb when they placed Him there. It was night. It was pitch black inside the tomb. He did not have a torch. Therefore He could not have identified the ‘door’ of the tomb because it was made out of exactly the same rocky material as the rest of the tomb. He had no hope of getting out of there.
Fourthly, even if He did somehow (miraculously) make His way to the door, how could He have moved it without the Roman soldiers noticing?
Fifthly, even if He truly did push away that stone all alone in the middle of the night with His non-existent strength, how is it He appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days rather than spending the next six months recovering on a hospital bed? Remember that when Jesus appeared to His followers, He was not weak or downtrodden but healthy and strong.
The Fainting Theory, therefore, cannot be taken seriously by thinking people.
Theory #3: The Hallucination Theory
A third theory, which came into fashion throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, is the Hallucination Theory which stipulates that Jesus’ followers did not really see Him. What they esteemed to be the “Resurrected Christ” was in reality a mere subjective hallucination.
Now, it should be pointed out that this theory has nothing to say about the empty tomb. Even if the Hallucination Theory were true, how do we account for Jesus’ tomb? If the disciples were just hallucinating when they saw Jesus then all the Jewish leaders would have had to do to silence their preaching would be to take Jesus’ corpse out of the tomb and display it before the people of Jerusalem.
It would have been that easy to stop the first apostles. The only problem of course is that the tomb was empty. Jesus’ body was not there.
Another huge problem faced by the Hallucination Theory is that there is actually no such thing as a collective hallucination. Hallucinations, it should be noted, are simply subjective individual phenomena that cannot be shared with others.
If you begin to hallucinate you may very well describe to me what you are seeing; but I cannot see the same as you. Your hallucination is wholly unique. It is important to recall that Jesus did not appear to one or two people but, as Scripture clarifies, He appeared to the women, then to Peter, then to the Twelve, then to some 500 brethren (many of whom were still alive when Paul penned his first epistle to the Corinthians). There is no way two people have the same hallucination. Let alone five hundred!
Something else worth keeping in mind is that hallucinations are extremely rare and they almost only take place within people who are highly expectant or in suspense. This was not the case with the Twelve. Furthermore, hallucinations are almost invariably associated with substance abuse or physical deprivations and they normally recur over a long period of time.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ appearances were limited to forty concrete days and then He was seen no more. And there is no biblical evidence that any of Christ’s disciples were drugged up when they saw Him.
Again, the Hallucination Theory seems to be itself an academic hallucination.
Theory #4: Christ really did resurrect!
After observing the numerous lacks in the three main arguments used against the resurrection of Jesus, the good news is that there is a pretty powerful forth theory. This theory does justice to the empty tomb, the post mortem appearances of Christ and the birth of Christianity. What is that theory? It is the theory that Jesus of Nazareth really did resurrect on the third day!
This fourth theory helps us explain so many mysteries that would be otherwise impossible to comprehend. For example:
- The unexplainable transformation of the disciples.
- The fact that the Twelve were willing to shed their blood for the message of the resurrection.
- The Gospels recording that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. No first-century Jew would have dreamed of appealing to a woman’s testimony unless it were really true.
- The conversion of total sceptics to the faith like Thomas and Jesus’ own brothers and sisters.The conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Paul).
- The fact that Jews began to worship a mere human being (Jesus) as God.
- The fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures about the resurrection of the Messiah.
- The fulfilment of Jesus’ own prophecies about His coming resurrection.
All in all, the fourth theory is by far the most fitting and reasonable. It makes sense of the evidence and it has a whole lot more explanatory power than any other argument. If God exists and He is almighty then there is really no reason to question the resurrection of Jesus who was delivered for our transgressions and raised again for our justification (Romans 4:25).
The best thing we can do this Easter is to cast aside the Robbery Theory, the Fainting Theory and the Hallucination Theory and thank the Lord for the resurrection.
Happy Easter to all!