This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).
In the previous post in this series, we established that the historical evidence for the resurrection, from eyewitnesses to secondary witnesses to hostile witnesses to archeology, have all supported the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus. However, throughout history this belief in the resurrection has been critically met by skeptics and cynics alike. To a certain extent, those critics have recognized that at least some of the historical evidence is trustworthy. In most cases, they don't deny that Jesus really lived, that he was crucified, and that he was buried. In fact, rarely do they even deny that the tomb was empty! What they do deny is that Jesus was resurrected, so there have been many theories posited as to what really happened to Jesus' body.
In this post, we will look at the four most prominent alternate theories for the resurrection that are now labeled “dead ends.” The reason these are dead end theories is because, since the eighteenth century, they have been so soundly refuted that none of them have gained the consensus of scholarship and intellectually honest scholars no longer hold to them.
So, why would we spend time on theories that are no longer tenable? First, because many people (non-scholars) still hold to them. They haven't heard the overwhelming evidence against these theories, and so it is good for us to know the arguments. Second, it will help us clear the way for the next post where we will be investigating the most popular alternate theory alive today.
The Conspiracy (Stolen Body) Theory
Our first alternate explanation is not only the most commonly held dead end theory, but it is also the oldest. Proponents of the Conspiracy (or Stolen Body) Theory hold that someone, usually the disciples, but sometimes Joseph of Arimathea or Pontius Pilate, stole the body and that all of Christianity is rooted in a conspiracy. The theory first originated the day after Jesus' crucifixion and burial by the Jewish chief priests and Pharisees (Matthew 27:62-66) and was reinforced after the tomb was found empty on the third day (Matthew 28:11-15).
The holes in this theory are numerous. Primarily, there are the issues of motive, execution, and consistency. The disciples certainly didn't have the motive to steal the body. They were in despair, hiding and even denying that they knew Jesus. They were fearful of what might happen to them and so the last thing they would want to do is draw more attention upon themselves. Joseph of Arimathea was in a similar position. He brought enough attention to himself when asking for the body of Jesus and was therefore likely suspected by his Sanhedral colleagues and wouldn't take any more risks. And then there is Pilate. Realistically, Pilate would have been the last person to disturb the body. He wanted to be rid of the problem altogether and had no reason at all to steal the body.
The next issue that the conspiracy theorist must face is the execution of stealing the body. First, we know that the tomb was still sealed on the second day when the guards got there because of the fact that they stayed there to guard it. If the tomb had already been broken into, the guards would have simply turned around and gone back to report it. Second, how could anyone have stolen the body when the area was crawling with guards? We don't know how many guards there were, but we do know that Peter was guarded by four squads of four men each when he was imprisoned by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12), so it is reasonable to conclude that there were at least a couple of squads with four soldiers each. It would take a complex plan with skilled professional thieves to incapacitate the guards, roll away the stone, steal the body, and disappear without being caught - far from anything of which the disciples were capable.
The third primary issue is one of behavioral consistency. Was the disciples' behavior consistent with a conspiracy? Absolutely not. Something happened to change the disciples' behavior so that they became bold in their faith and belief even to the point of horrible deaths. Sincerity and moral character was of utmost importance to them, and they wrote about these events and their belief so early that all the other witnesses to these events could have easily refuted them and effectively shut down Christianity from the start. If they had stolen the body, why would they have lived they way they did and then died for their belief?
In summary, for one to hold to this theory they would have to believe “(1) that twelve poor fishermen were able to change the world through a plot laid so deep that no one has ever been able to discern where the cheat lay, (2) that these men gave up the pursuit of happiness and ventured into poverty, torments, and persecutions for nothing, (3) that depressed and fearful men would have suddenly grown so brave as to break into the tomb and steal the body, and (4) that these imposters would furnish the world with the greatest system of morality that ever was” (The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, William Lane Craig, p. 27-28).
The Apparent Death (Swoon) Theory
In the second alternate theory, the Apparent Death (or Swoon) Theory, it is believed that Jesus didn't die on the cross, but just seemed to die. Then, after Jesus was buried in the tomb, he recovered from his wounds, regained his strength, managed to escape from the tomb, found some clothes, and was nursed back to health by the disciples. The first mention of this theory is from Celsus in the 2nd century AD.
This theory suffers from a lack of understanding of Roman crucifixions. The Romans were vigilant about their crucifixions. Victims did not escape with their lives. Roman soldiers made sure that criminals died because if they survived then the soldiers themselves would likely be killed. They were brutal and torturous and no one survived. (The only exception I am aware of is from Josephus where he discovered that three of his friends were being crucified. Josephus intervened and had them pardoned so that they were quickly taken down from their crosses. Even then, two of the three still died. Clearly, though, their crucifixions were not completely carried out since their death sentence was overturned.)
The NT description of Jesus' crucifixion fits well with other Roman crucifixions, so many have used it to gain additional information about the physiology of the victim. In 1986, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article entitled On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. In this article, the authors meticulously studied the historical and medical evidence given in the NT to see, from a modern medical perspective, if Jesus was really dead when he was taken down from the cross. Their conclusion, and I want to remind you that it comes from a decidedly non-Christian publication, is that Jesus died from either cardiac rupture or cardiorespiratory failure before the spear was thrust into his side. In their professional medical opinion, there is no possibility that Jesus survived the cross.
However, even if we grant that the Roman soldiers failed in their crucifixion of Jesus and that he only appeared to be dead, how would a crawling, wounded, almost dead man unwrap himself from his death shroud, have the strength to move the stone covering the tomb, make it to his disciples, and then inspire them to found their faith on his triumphal and victorious resurrection? Would that be the foundation to any faith?
The Wrong Tomb Theory
The third alternate explanation is the Wrong Tomb Theory. This theory posits that early Sunday morning the women went to the wrong tomb and that it was the gardner or grave worker that startled the women. However, Matthew 27:61 clearly shows that the women directly observed where Jesus was buried. Even if they had the wrong tomb, this is an issue that would have been quickly resolved. The disciples, Joseph of Arimathea, or even Pilate would have corrected the error. In fact, at any time the Roman or Jewish authorities could have led a crowd down to the correct tomb, opened it up, and displayed the body of Jesus for all to see. They had the means, motive, and opportunity to do it, but they never did because the tomb – the correct tomb – was empty.
The Hallucination Theory
The final dead end theory is the Hallucination Theory. Believers in this theory hold that the multiple visions or appearances of Jesus after his death were merely the psychic effects of the deep distress that the women felt when they went to the tomb. Then, this effect became contagious and so many after that saw Jesus too.
This theory would have more substance if only one person, or just a few at the most, had the hallucination. This type of experience is usually an individual experience where the person is anticipating and hoping that the person would come back to life. However, a collective, group hallucination at various times, in various places, and with various people has no historical precedent and is virtually impossible, especially considering they were sorrowful and in despair, exactly the opposite condition needed to bring about a hallucination. This doesn't even address the issue surrounding the abrupt stop to the visions. Why did all of these hallucinations suddenly stop 40 days after they began. Why wouldn't they have continued?
These four alternate theories to the resurrection are the historically classic responses that attempt to explain away the Christian belief that Jesus was truly and bodily resurrected from the dead. We have seen, though, that these theories fail when put under even mild scrutiny which has led modern scholars to reject these theories for the last 200 years. However, there is still another theory that most non-Christian scholars hold to today. This will be the topic of the next post.
This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).