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According to a New York Times article,
“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?”
Morison Examines the Evidence
Morison wanted to know what actually happened that changed Jesus’ followers and started a movement that has made such a profound impact on our world. He realized there were five possible explanations:
• Jesus didn’t really die on the cross
• Jesus’ body was stolen
• The disciples were hallucinating
• The account is legendary. Or,
• It really happened
Morison began examining the facts patiently and impartially to see where they would lead him.
1. Was Jesus Dead?
Morison first wanted verification that Jesus was really dead when placed in the tomb. He learned that Jesus’ death was considered factual for nearly 1800 years. Then about 200 years ago, a few skeptics postulated that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but merely lost consciousness, and was revived by the cool, damp air of the tomb. This became known as the “swoon theory.”
Morison wondered if Jesus could have survived the cross. He researched both Jewish and Roman contemporary history and discovered the following facts supporting Jesus’ death:
• All the accounts affirm he died
• Pilate verified he died
• During the lifetime of the eyewitnesses no one disputes his death
• Secular and contemporary historians, Lucian, Josephus, and Tacitus cite his death as factual
Morison became convinced that Jesus was truly dead, a fact almost universally accepted as true by trusted scholars and historians. Morison concludes, “That Jesus Christ died on the cross, in the full physical sense of the term…seems to me to be one of the certainties of history.”
2. Was Jesus’ body stolen?
Morison wondered if the disciples faked the resurrection story by stealing Jesus’ body, and then claiming he was alive. That might be plausible if the tomb was in an obscure area where no one would see them.
However, the tomb belonged to a well-known member of the Sanhedrin Council, Joseph of Arimathea. Since Joseph’s tomb was at a well-known location and easily identifiable, any thoughts of Jesus being “lost in the graveyard” would need to be dismissed.
Not only was the location well known, but the Romans had assigned guards to watch the tomb 24 hours a day. This was a trained guard unit comprised of four to 16 soldiers. Josh McDowell notes, “The Roman Guard unit was committed to discipline and they feared failure in any way.” It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by the guards unnoticed and then move the stone. Yet the stone was rolled away, making it possible for eyewitnesses to enter the tomb. And when they did, the body of Jesus was missing.
If Jesus’ body was 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.”
So, with no body of evidence, and with a known tomb clearly empty, Morison accepted that Jesus’ body had somehow disappeared from the tomb.
3. Were the Disciples Hallucinating?
Morison wondered if the disciples might have been so emotionally distraught that they hallucinated and imagined Jesus’ resurrection.
Psychologist Gary Collins, former president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, explains that, “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.”
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.”
The hallucination theory, then, appears to be another dead end. What else could explain away the resurrection?
4. Is it just a 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 on. But there are three major problems with that theory:
A. Legends simply don’t 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. Even skeptical scholars admit that Christian hymns and creeds were recited in early churches within two to three years of Jesus’ crucifixion.
B. Legends develop by oral tradition and are not supported with contemporary historical documents. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection.
C. The legend theory doesn’t adequately explain either the empty tomb or the fervent conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.
Morison’s original assumption that the resurrection account was mythical or legendary didn’t coincide with the facts.