By Adam S. Francisco
Scholars and TV documentaries have proposed all sorts of theories to explain why Jesus’ tomb was empty on Easter morning. Here are five of these objections to Jesus’ resurrection and suggestions for countering them with simple explanations.
The Naturalist Objection
Many people simply cannot believe in the resurrection — or any miracle for that matter. Dead people do not come back to life — not today or in the past. Therefore, Jesus could not have risen from the dead. As Bart Ehrman claims in his popular The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, miracles are so improbable that they should be regarded as impossible. Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament, then, should be regarded as stories told by Christians in the Early Church and not as accounts of real historical events.
This objection to the resurrection is often called naturalism; it presumes that only the material or natural world exists. It rejects events caused by something other than the natural order as impossible.
We should challenge this objection with the sheer existence of nature. How did the universe come into existence? What caused (or created) it all? How can the complex design of the natural world — from the constants required to hold it all together to the intricacies of every individual human cell — be explained apart from some sort of intelligent designer?
The naturalist objection to the resurrection is problematic from the start. It rejects a claim about an alleged fact — that Jesus rose from the dead in real time and real space — before considering the evidence for the claim. It assumes what is possible and draws conclusions based on its initial assumptions. This is circular reasoning. It assumes a viewpoint and then makes a claim based on that viewpoint.
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is not a point of view. It is a claim of historical fact, one that Paul boldly confessed “has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). It may be investigated like any alleged historical event. Is there any historical merit to the claim? The question can and, in the face of unbelief, should be answered by the evidence. Jesus’ death on a cross, burial in a tomb that was empty three days later, and the disciples’ testimony of His resurrection are all well-established facts. (So much so that skeptics have focused on undermining Christianity by attempting to explain them away.)
There is no evidence to the contrary. Those in a position to produce contrary evidence — the Jewish and Roman authorities in the Holy Land around A.D. 30 — had every means, motive and opportunity to disprove the resurrection, and they did not.
The naturalist objection prejudges Jesus’ resurrection and fails to take seriously its historical claim. It denies the resurrection based on a faithlike commitment — a judgment made before looking at the facts — rather than a claim of fact about Jesus’ fate after His crucifixion.
The Swoon Theory
Some scholars have tried to explain away the resurrection with the so-called swoon theory. In the 18th century, a German scholar named Karl Friedrich Bahrdt proposed that Jesus never died on the cross. Instead, Bahrdt claimed, Jesus faked His death by swooning, using a mixture of drugs He acquired from Luke the physician. Then, when He regained consciousness, He appeared to have risen from the dead and convinced the Jews that He was the Messiah.
In the ’60s, Hugh J. Schonfield popularized a version of this theory in his book The Passover Plot. It has gained attention yet again through the work of the late Michael Baigent. In Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) and Jesus Papers (2006), Baigent proposed that Pontius Pilate was bribed to take Jesus’ body down from the cross after He fell unconscious. Jesus recovered some time later and thereafter lived a private life. He and His partner or possibly wife, Mary Magdalene, had at least one child, and His descendants eventually migrated to southern France where they became a powerful dynasty in the early medieval kingdom of the Franks. This theory became more popular through The DaVinci Code in the early 2000s.
Even Muslims have gotten on board with the swoon hypothesis. Books popular in Islamic circles like Jesus in India and Crucifixion or Cruci-fiction all claim that Jesus never died on the cross and, therefore, no resurrection took place. Jesus in India claims that Jesus is buried in Kashmir, India. The most popular and historical explanation in the Islamic tradition, though, claims that Jesus was not crucified at all. Instead, the Romans mistakenly crucified Judas in Jesus’ place.
Scholars routinely and consistently describe the various swoon theories as pseudo-science. And for good reason, for they are all connected to a variety of conspiracy theories. Baigent claimed to have uncovered a royal bloodline that could be traced back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The various Islamic claims about the resurrection were constructed to explain a passage from Quran 4 that claims Jesus never died on the cross.
The historical evidence for Jesus’ physical death on the cross is overwhelming. So is the forensic analysis. A Journal of American Medical Association article titled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” (1986) concludes that the “weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead” by the time that He was taken down from the cross, and any other explanations such as the swoon theory are “at odds with modern medical knowledge.”
There is no reason to think that anyone could survive the torture and blood loss Jesus endured before being nailed to the cross, the exhaustion and asphyxiation from hanging for hours on Good Friday, and finally the piercing of His heart to ensure He was dead. Indeed, the evidence all confirms what Christians have always confessed, that Jesus suffered, died and was buried, and three days later He rose again.
Lying or Deceived Disciples
One of the oldest attempts to undermine the claim that Jesus rose from the dead was concocted within days of the event itself. You are probably already familiar with it. When the guards found the tomb empty early Easter morning, they reported it to the Jews:
“Some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matt. 28:11–15).
Versions of this story are still told today. In conjunction with the release of the controversial book The Jesus Family Tomb, the Discovery Channel and James Cameron produced a documentary called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” Both the book and the documentary try to explain Jesus’ empty tomb. The body of Jesus had been moved, they assert. Jesus was not really buried in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Rather, the theory continues, His body was stored there temporarily on Good Friday, but before Easter Sunday, either the Romans moved Him to a graveyard for criminals or His family took custody of His body and buried Him at an undisclosed location.
The book and documentary further claim that evidence discovered in 1980 from what is called the Talpiot tomb suggests the latter, as ossuaries (bone boxes) with the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph were found in what seems like a family tomb. All this implies that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that the testimony of the disciples is fraudulent.
However, there is no historical evidence that the Romans or Jesus’ family moved His body from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The one piece of archeological evidence, the Talpiot tomb, is simply a tomb containing the remains of people bearing some of the most common names used in firstcentury Jerusalem. Other names appearing in the tomb, such as “Judah, son of Jesus,” make it clear that this was the tomb of a different Jesus and his family and not the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, archeologists and historians of every stripe have almost unanimously rejected the claims of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” describing it (in Paul Maier’s words) as “naked hype, baseless sensationalism, and nothing less than a media fraud.”
Mass Hallucination Theory
Another popular attempt at undermining the evidence for the resurrection focuses on the testimony of the eyewitnesses. It acknowledges that many if not all of the disciples who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus did, in fact, see Him. But this all occurred after the traumatic experience of His crucifixion or in the midst of the grief they shared after hearing about His death. What they really saw, then, was not an objective, flesh-and-blood Jesus. They were experiencing hallucinations. Richard Carrier, one of the leading proponents of this theory, even claims that “the best explanation, consistent with scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another.”
Hallucinations are not uncommon, particularly for grieving people in stressful environments. Jesus’ disciples certainly would have experienced such anxiety. They had just witnessed their beloved teacher, a man they hoped would restore the kingdom of Israel, executed in the most brutal way. Such an environment was just right — and ripe — for the hallucinations they experienced, it is alleged. The return of their friend and Lord would have alleviated their grief and comforted those who had lost hope.
There are at least two problems with this theory. First, while hallucinations might not be unusual in an environment like Jerusalem amidst Jesus’ disciples following Good Friday, this theory implies that hundreds of people (Paul mentions over 500 in 1 Cor. 15:3–8) experienced the same hallucinogenic visions. Hallucinations, however, are private and individual occurrences. They cannot be seen by another individual. They are not collectively experienced, and there is no evidence in psychological literature supporting the notion of mass hallucinations.
Secondly, the eyewitnesses did not report that they only saw Jesus with their eyes or heard Him with their ears. They claim to have physically touched Him as well (Luke 24:36-40; 1 John 1:1; 2 Peter 1:16). Think of the case of Thomas. Though his friends all claimed to have seen Jesus, he must have thought they were either making it up or, perhaps, hallucinating. John writes:
“’Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’ Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe'” (John 20:25–27).
We might also add that if so many people who claimed to have seen Jesus after His death were hallucinating, there would most likely be evidence of an accusation to that effect from the first to the early second century. But we find none. Instead, the evidence consistently affirms His bodily resurrection and explains why Thomas the skeptic would boldly and finally confess, “My Lord and my God!”
Derived From Resurrection Myths
Modern skeptics also make at least one additional attempt to undermine the resurrection. They reject the historical reality of much of Jesus’ life, and explain the Gospel narratives by reviving outdated (and discredited) claims. They assert that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John just rework old Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian mythologies. The story of the resurrection, in particular, was derived not from history but from myths about dying and rising gods found in the mystery religions of antiquity. As Tom Harpur alleges in The Pagan Christ (2004), “There is nothing the Jesus of the Gospels either said or did…that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before, in Egyptian Mystery rites and other sacred liturgies.” The death and resurrection of Jesus are, claims The Jesus Mysteries, “a product of Paganism!”
Some similarities exist between some of the ancient mythologies and the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Persian myth of Mithras, dating back to the 14th century B.C., comes the closest. While little is known about how it began and its peculiar teachings, by the time it attracted a following in the Roman Empire, the god Mithras was said to have been born of a virgin on December 25, to have had 12 disciples and even to have sacrificially died only to rise again three days later.
The similarities to Christianity are uncanny, and already in the second century, a Christian apologist named Justin Martyr noted them. Rather than Christians copying Mithraism, however, he accused the Roman adopters of altering Mithraic teaching to resemble Christian teaching. Modern research has confirmed Justin Martyr’s accusation. That is to say, second-century Roman Mithraism was influenced by Christian ideas and not the other way around.
The case for Christians co-opting other ancient myths is just as spurious; specialists conclude that there is no good historical evidence demonstrating the narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection were drawn from or inspired by ancient pagan myths.
Additionally, the authors of the Gospels would have written their accounts of Jesus’ life differently if they were trying to persuade their readers to believe what was essentially a myth. They included geographical, cultural and political details that could have been too easily exposed. They named Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness (John 20:11–18); this makes no sense in a culture that regarded a woman’s testimony as questionable and inadmissible in a court of law. And Paul would not have suggested his readers could interview eyewitnesses who were still alive when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Lastly, as Paul Maier says, “myths don’t make martyrs.” All but one of the apostles died for the confession that Jesus rose from the dead. While people might and often do die for an untrue cause, they do not willingly die for beliefs they know to be untrue.
Dr. Adam S. Francisco teaches at Concordia University Irvine.