Resurrection: What are some common alternative explanations for Jesus’ resurrection?

Resurrection: What are some common alternative explanations for Jesus’ resurrection?

Jesus did not die on the cross but merely swooned. Some have argued that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross but rather swooned or basically passed out and therefore appeared dead. This is also what the Muslim Qu’ran teaches as fact. Regarding this claim, theologian John Stott has asked if we are to believe

that after the rigours and pains of trial, mockery, flogging and crucifixion he could survive thirty-six hours in a stone sepulchre with neither warmth nor food nor medical care? That he could then rally sufficiently to perform the superhuman feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb, and this without disturbing the Roman guard? That then, weak and sickly and hungry, he could appear to the disciples in such a way as to give them the impression that he had vanquished death? That he could go on to claim that he had died and risen, could send them into all the world and promise to be with them unto the end of time? That he could live somewhere in hiding for forty days, making occasional   surprise appearances, and then finally disappear without explanations? Such credulity is more incredible than Thomas’ unbelief.1

Also, as we’ve noted, crucifixion is essentially death by asphyxiation, because the prisoner grows too tired to lift himself up and fill his lungs with air. This explains why the Romans would often break a prisoner’s legs, thus preventing him from continuing to fill his lungs with air. Since the professional executioners did not break Jesus’ legs, these professional executioners must have been convinced of his death. The only way Jesus could have deceived the executioners would have been to stop breathing, which in itself would have killed him.

Lastly, John 19:34–35 tells us that the Roman soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’ heart to confirm his death. The water that poured out was probably from the sac surrounding his heart, and the blood most likely came from the right side of his heart. Even if he had been alive, this would have killed him.2

 Jesus did not rise and his body was stolen.The original explanation given for the empty tomb by those Jews who did not choose to worship Jesus as God was that the tomb was indeed empty, but not because of a resurrection but because of a theft of Jesus’ dead body.3 For this to be true, a number of impossibilities would have had to occur. (1) Despite the fact that it would have cost them their lives, all the guards positioned at the tomb would have had to fall asleep at the same time. (2) Each of the guards would have had to not only fall asleep but also remain asleep and not be awakened by the breaking of the Roman seal on the tomb, the rolling away of the enormous stone which blocked the entrance, or the carrying off of the dead body. (3) Even if Jesus’ body was stolen, there is no way to account for its returning to vibrant and triumphant life.

The issue of motive is also a key factor in refuting this hypothesis. What benefit would there be for the disciples to risk their lives to steal a corpse and die for a lie as a result? What motive would there be for the Jews, Romans, or anyone else to steal the body? And, if the body were truly stolen, could not a bounty have been offered and someone enticed to provide the body in exchange for a handsome cash reward?

A twin brother, or a look-alike, died in Jesus’ place. It has been suggested by some people that Jesus was not the one crucified but rather a brother or other man who looked like him. However, there is not a shred of evidence to prove that someone who looked like Jesus existed at that time. Additionally, Jesus’ mother was present at his crucifixion, and the likelihood of fooling his mother is minimal. Also, the physical wounds he suffered during the crucifixion were visible on Jesus’ resurrection body and carefully inspected by the disciple Thomas, who was very doubtful that Jesus had risen until he touched scars from the crucifixion evident on Jesus’ body.4 In addition, the tomb was empty and the burial cloths were left behind.

Jesus’ followers hallucinated his resurrection. Some people have suggested that the disciples did not actually see Jesus risen from death but rather hallucinated, or projected, their desires for his resurrection into a hallucination. One example is John Dominic Crossan, cochairman of the Jesus Seminar. He told Time magazine that after the crucifixion, Jesus’ corpse was probably laid in a shallow grave, barely covered with dirt, and eaten by wild dogs. The subsequent story of Jesus’ resurrection, he says, was merely the result of “wishful thinking.”5

Similarly, fellow Jesus Seminar member John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop, denies the resurrection and believes Jesus’ body was thrown in a common grave along with other crucifixion victims. Subsequently, he says the “Easter moment” happened to Peter, not to Jesus. Peter saw Jesus alive in “the heart of God” and began to open the eyes of the other disciples to this reality.6 Spong writes, “That was the dawn of Easter in human history. It would be fair to say that in that moment Simon felt resurrected.”7

This thesis is unbelievable for five reasons. (1) A hallucination is a private, not public, experience. Yet Paul clearly states that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time.8 (2) Jesus appeared in a variety of times at a variety of locations, whereas hallucinations are generally restricted to individual times and places. (3) Certain types of people tend to be more prone to hallucination than others. Yet Jesus appeared to a great variety of personalities, including his brothers and mother. (4) After forty days Jesus’ appearances suddenly stopped for everyone simultaneously. Hallucinations tend to continue over longer periods of time and do not stop abruptly. (5) A hallucination is a projection of a thought that preexists in the mind. However, the Jews had a conception of resurrection that applied to the raising of all people at the end of history,9 not the raising of any particular individual in the middle of history.10 Therefore, it is inconceivable that the witnesses to the resurrection could have hallucinated Jesus’ resurrection.

In considering the objections to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, C. S. Lewis’s charge of “chronological snobbery” begins to make sense.11 Each of the objections is predicated upon the assumption that people   in Jesus’ day were less intelligent and more gullible than we are today. However, it can be argued persuasively that in their world with fewer hospitals, medicines, and hospices to care for dying people, they were more personally aware of the finality of death than we moderns are. Additionally, as we have already surveyed, they did not even believe in resurrection, and because of the influence of Greek dualism upon them, which considered the body an unwanted husk to be discarded so the soul could truly live, the entire idea of resurrection was undesirable. Taken together, it is apparent that such chronological snobbery reveals more about the character of those moderns who appeal to it than those ancients who are dismissed by it.

Do you find any of these alternative explanations to Jesus’ resurrection compelling? Why?

1John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity, 1971), 49.
2C. Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” Arizona Medicine (March 1965): 183–87.
3Matt. 28:11–15.
4John 20:24–28.
5Richard N. Ostling, “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time, January 10, 1994, 32–33.
6John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 143.
7Ibid., 255, emphasis added.
81 Cor. 15:1–6.
9E.g., Dan. 12:2.
10See Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” 159–60.
11C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 201.