Can We Explain Away the Resurrection?

IN A NEW York Times article, Peter Steinfels cites the startling events that occurred three days after Jesus’ death. “Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanized from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened….But exactly what?”[1] That’s the question we have to answer with an investigation into the facts.

There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus’ alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament:

  • Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.
  • The “resurrection” was a conspiracy.
  • The disciples were hallucinating.
  • The account is legendary.
  • It really happened.

Let’s work our way through these options and see which one best fits the facts. We’ll consider the first four options in this chapter and the fifth in the next.

Signing the Death Certificate

“Marley was deader than a doornail, of that there was no doubt.” So begins Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the author not wanting anyone to be mistaken as to the supernatural character of what is soon to take place. In the same way, before we take on the role of CSI (crime scene investigator) and piece together evidence for a resurrection, we must first establish that there was, in fact, a corpse. After all, occasionally the newspapers will report on some “corpse” in a morgue who was found stirring and recovered. Could something like that have happened with Jesus?

Some have proposed that Jesus lived through the crucifixion and was revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb. But that theory doesn’t square with the medical evidence. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains why this so-called “swoon theory” is untenable. “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead….The spear, thrust between His right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured His death.”[2] But skepticism of this verdict may be in order, as this case has been cold for two thousand years. At the very least, we need a second opinion.

One place to find that is in the reports of non- Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus.

  • Lucian (c. 120–after 180) referred to Jesus as a “crucified sophist,” or philosopher.[3]
  • Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) wrote, “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so (See note 4).”[4]
  • Tacitus (c. 56–c. 120) wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty…at the hands of our procurator, Pontius Pilate.”[5]

This is a bit like going into the archives and finding that on one spring day in the first century, The Jerusalem Post ran a front-page story saying that Jesus was crucified and dead. Not bad detective work, and fairly conclusive.

In fact, there is no historical account from Christians, Romans, or Jews that disputes either Jesus’ death or his burial. If Jesus hadn’t really died on the cross, one wonders why his enemies wouldn’t have shouted it from their rooftops, as his followers publicly proclaimed his crucifixion and resurrection.

Even Crossan, a skeptic of the resurrection, agrees that Jesus really lived and died on the cross. He states, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[6] In light of such historical and medical evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of our five options. Jesus was clearly dead. “Of that there was no doubt.”

The Matter of an Empty Tomb

No serious historian really doubts Jesus was dead when he was taken down from the cross. However, many have questioned how Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb. Some have proposed that a plot was devised to make it look like Jesus had risen.

English journalist Dr. Frank Morison initially thought the resurrection was either a myth or a hoax, and he began research to write a book refuting it.[7] The book became famous—but for reasons other than its original intent.

Morison began by attempting to solve the case of the empty tomb. The tomb belonged to a member of the Sanhedrin council, Joseph of Arimathea. In Israel at that time, to be on the council was to be a rock star. Everyone knew who was on the council. Joseph must have been a real person. Otherwise, the Jewish leaders would have exposed the story as a fraud in their attempt to disprove the resurrection. Also, Joseph’s tomb would have been at a well-known location and easily identifiable, so any thoughts of Jesus being “lost in the graveyard” would need to be dismissed.

Morison wondered why Jesus’ enemies would have allowed the “empty tomb myth” to persist if it weren’t true. The discovery of Jesus’ body would have instantly killed the entire plot.

And what is known historically of Jesus’ enemies is that they accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body, an accusation clearly predicated on a shared belief that the tomb was empty.

Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, similarly stated, “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable…to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered…that would disprove this statement.”[8]

The Jewish leaders were stunned. They accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. But the Romans had assigned a 24-hour watch at the tomb with a trained guard unit (from four to 16 soldiers). Josh McDowell notes that these were not ordinary soldiers. “When that guard unit failed in its duty—if they fell asleep, left their position, or failed in any way—there are a number of historical sources that go back and describe what happens. Many of them are stripped of their own clothes, they are burned alive in a fire started with their own garments or they are crucified upside down. The Roman Guard unit was committed to discipline and they feared failure in any way.”[9]

It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by these trained professionals and to have moved a two-ton stone. Yet the stone was moved away and the body of Jesus was missing.

If Jesus’ body were anywhere to be found, his enemies would have quickly exposed the resurrection as a fraud. Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, summarizes the strength of this argument. “With an event so well publicized, don’t you think that it’s reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ’s body?…The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection.”[10]

So, with a known tomb clearly empty, Morison accepted the evidence as solid that Jesus’ body had somehow disappeared from the tomb.

Grave Robbing

Morison still had doubts about what caused the tomb to be empty. An empty tomb is insufficient proof that Jesus had risen. As the skeptical journalist continued his investigation, he began to examine the motives of Jesus’ followers. Maybe the supposed resurrection was actually a stolen body. But if so, how does one account for all the reported appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Historian Paul Johnson, in History of the Jews, wrote, “What mattered was not the circumstances of his death but the fact that he was widely and obstinately believed, by an expanding circle of people, to have risen again.”[11]

The tomb was indeed empty. But it wasn’t the mere absence of a body that could have galvanized Jesus’ followers (especially if they had been the ones who had stolen it). Something extraordinary must have happened, for the followers of Jesus ceased mourning, ceased hiding, and began fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive.

Each eyewitness account reports that Jesus suddenly appeared bodily to his followers, the women first. Morison wondered why conspirators would make women central to its plot. In the first century, women had virtually no rights or status. If the plot were to succeed, Morison reasoned, the conspirators would have portrayed men, not women, as the first to see Jesus alive. And yet we hear that women touched him, spoke with him, and were the first to find the empty tomb.

Later, according to the eyewitness accounts, all the disciples saw Jesus on more than ten separate occasions. They wrote that he showed them his hands and feet and told them to touch him. And he reportedly ate with them and later appeared alive to more than five hundred followers on one occasion.

Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery stated, “In 56 a.d. the Apostle Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6ff.). It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.”[12]

Bible scholars Geisler and Turek agree. “If the Resurrection had not occurred, why would the Apostle Paul give such a list of supposed eyewitnesses? He would immediately lose all credibility with his Corinthian readers by lying so blatantly.”[13]

The Apostle Peter told a crowd in Caesarea why he and the other disciples were so convinced Jesus was alive. “We apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Israel and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by crucifying him, but God raised him to life three days later….We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”[14]

British Bible scholar Michael Green remarked, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenti- cated as anything in antiquity….There can be no rational doubt that they occurred.”[15]

Consistent to the End

As if the eyewitness reports were not enough to challenge Morison’s skepticism, he was also baffled by the disciples’ behavior. A fact of history that has stumped historians, psychologists, and skeptics alike is that these 11 former cowards were suddenly willing to suffer humiliation, torture, and death. All but one of Jesus’ disciples were slain as martyrs. Would they have done so much for a lie, knowing they had taken the body?

The Islamic suicide terrorists on September 11, 2001, proved that some will die for a false cause they believe in. Yet to be a willing martyr for a known lie is insanity. As Paul Little wrote, “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.”[16] Jesus’ disciples behaved in a manner consistent with a genuine belief that their leader was alive.

No one has adequately explained why the disciples would have been willing to die for a known lie. But even if they all conspired to lie about Jesus’ resurrection, how could they have kept the conspiracy going for decades without at least one of them selling out for money or position? J. P. Moreland wrote, “Those who lie for personal gain do not stick together very long, especially when hardship decreases the benefits.”[17]

Chuck Colson, implicated in the Watergate scandal during President Nixon’s administration, pointed out the difficulty of several people maintaining a lie for an extended period of time.

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.[18]

Something happened that changed everything for these men and women. Morison acknowledged, “Whoever comes to this problem has sooner or later to confront a fact that cannot be explained away….This fact is that…a profound conviction came to the little group of people—a change that attests to the fact that Jesus had risen from the grave.”[19] We have to move on to the third option: hallucination.

Seeing Things

People still think they see a fat, gray-haired Elvis darting into Dunkin Donuts. And then there are those who believe they spent last night with aliens in the mother ship being subjected to unspeakable testing. Sometimes certain people can “see” things they want to, things that aren’t really there. And that’s why some have claimed that the disciples were so distraught over the crucifixion that their desire to see Jesus alive caused mass hallucination. Plausible?

Psychologist Gary Collins, former president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, was asked about the possibility that hallucinations were behind the disciples’ radically changed behavior. Collins remarked, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature, only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.”[20]

Hallucination is not even a remote possibility, according to psychologist Thomas J. Thorburn. “It is absolutely inconceivable that… five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind…should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions—visual, auditory, tactual—and that all these…experiences should rest entirely upon…hallucination.”[21]

Furthermore, in the psychology of hallucinations, people would need to be in a frame of mind where they so wished to see that person that their mind contrives it. Two major leaders of the early church, James and Paul, both encountered a resurrected Jesus, neither expecting nor hoping for the pleasure. James was skeptical of Jesus’ deity prior to the resurrection. The Apostle Paul, in fact, led the earliest persecutions of Christians, and his conversion remains inexplicable except for his own testimony that Jesus appeared to him, resurrected.

The hallucination theory, then, appears to be another dead end. What else could explain away the resurrection?

From Lie to Legend

Some unconvinced skeptics attribute the resurrection story to a legend that began with one or more persons lying or thinking they saw the resurrected Jesus. Over time, the legend would have grown and been embellished as it was passed around.

On the surface this seems like a plausible scenario. But there are three major problems with that theory.

First, legends rarely develop while multiple eyewitnesses are alive to refute them. One historian of ancient Rome and Greece, A. N. Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend.[22]

Second, legends usually develop over several centuries by oral tradition and don’t come with contemporary historical documents that can be verified. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection.[23] Paul’s historical account of the resurrection, written a decade earlier, cites a creed many critical scholars say originated “within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion and from the disciples themselves.”[24]

Third, the legend theory doesn’t adequately explain the fact of the empty tomb, the Jews’ argument that the body was stolen, or the historically verified conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.[25]

The perspective that the resurrection was a legend doesn’t seem to hold up any better than the other attempts to explain away this amazing claim. It seems that Jesus really was dead, that the disciples showed no sign of engaging in a conspiracy to promote a false resurrection, that they knew what they were talking about when they said they saw the risen Jesus, and that the resurrection could not have been a legend that grew up over time.

That leaves us with one extraordinary conclusion.