But do they hold up?
Last week I explained five historical facts that must be accounted for either to affirm or deny that Jesus rose from the dead. These facts do not rely on supernatural authority or a claim that they must be believed because the Bible is inspired Scripture.
Historians, and not just Christian ones, are in broad consensus that these were factual events, not claims invented by the church, especially since absent these facts there is no reason to assume there would have been a church to invent them in the first place. Thus, seriously grappling with the claim that Jesus rose from the dead must include these facts in the explanation. Explanations must actually explain. Simply to deny these facts does not explain them. One might as well try to explain how the Civil War started by ignoring the attack on Fort Sumter. Skeptics of the historical fact of Jesus's resurrection offer explanations that fall into four main categories:
1. The key actors on Good Friday and Sunday morning botched what they were doing.
2. Science proves Jesus’s resurrection is impossible.
3. The accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are mythical of a kind common in the ancient world. 4. The apostles were either deluded or they mounted a deliberate conspiracy of falsehoods.
The "they botched it" theories
The "Swoon Theory"
The first allegedly-botched job was the crucifixion, in which the Romans incompetently took Jesus down from the cross unconscious rather than dead. Joseph and the women entombed Jesus still alive. This is called the “Swoon” theory. The swoon theory says that the coolness of the tomb and Friday’s partial application of funereal spices made Jesus come to his senses. Before dawn Sunday he rolled away the stone, and found some workman’s clothes, causing Mary Magdalene to mistake him for a gardener. So the swoon theory does explain why the women found the tomb empty and why the presumed gardener claimed he was Jesus.
But it assumes that
were all relatively minor injuries that
- the brutal flogging that Jesus received from the Romans,
- the shredding of his head by a wreath of thorns,
- hanging on the cross with nailed hands and feet,
- and the deep piercing of his chest by a Roman spear,
The swoon theory also ignores the fact that Jesus would have consumed neither food nor drink since Thursday evening but apparently suffered no ill effects from 84 hours or so without nourishment or water.
- left Jesus mentally fully competent,
- evoked too little bleeding to kill or much weaken him,
- insufficiently injured his hands and feet to degrade either his dexterity or mobility
- left him with enough physical strength to single-handedly roll away a one-ton stone from the tomb.
- had healed enough so that Mary did not recognize him as the recently-crucified Jesus.
The theory assumes that Roman soldiers, of all people, did not know how to kill a defenseless man and ignores that their motivation to make sure Jesus was dead very very great: under Roman military law they could have been executed themselves for failing to carry out the sentence properly.
The swoon theory also requires that Joseph and the women who partially prepared Jesus for burial on Friday did not detect that he still breathed and had a heartbeat, however weak it may have been. People in ancient times were very familiar with corpses. There were no funeral homes. Families did that work on their own. The women friends of Jesus, like any women of the day, knew very well about -
- livor mortis, the collection of blood in the lowest parts of a corpse after the heart ceases beating, due to gravity. Livor mortis causes marked purpling of the body where it occurs and is usually noticeable starting about 20 minutes after death. A man dead on a cross would have been so colored at least from the knees down. If Jesus was not dead when he was removed, livor mortis would not have occurred and the women would certainly have noticed.
- rigor mortis, the stiffening of the limbs of a corpse caused by chemical changes in the muscles. A corpse is highly resistant to manipulation because of this. To be fair to the swoon theory, though, it take between 4-6 hours after death for rigor mortis to set in. Jesus was probably entombed by then.
The swoon theory, then, requires not only that the Roman soldiers blundered the crucifixion but that the women were blind to the lack of empirical evidence that Jesus was dead, evidence which was common knowledge in their day.
The swoon theory does not explain
An explanation, actually to explain, cannot create more unresolved issues than it tries to solve. The swoon theory thus fails.
- why Mary said Jesus was risen rather than survived.
- why Jesus apparently needed no medical care or convalescence.
- with whom Jesus lodged after his botched crucifixion, because he is nowhere presented as hanging out with his old friends.
- why Paul and James said they knew Jesus risen
- why the Church would begin with such energy and devotion
- why the apostles suffered hard lives and cruel deaths to insist that Jesus was a risen Savior rather than merely a lucky guy.
- why the Romans did not mount a manhunt for the surviving Jesus when we know that when the Romans wanted you dead, they meant it. (The Romans didn't hunt for Jesus after the historical resurrection, either, when Peter et. al. were proclaiming him risen. Why? Because the Romans knew darn good and well they had killed him on the cross.)
The “wrong-tomb” theory
This theory simply says that on Sunday morning the women mistakenly went to an unused, open tomb, talked with a gardener whom they mistook for Jesus, then excitedly told the disciples that Jesus’s tomb was empty and Jesus was risen.
The wrong tomb theory does not explain
- The women were not looking for an open, empty tomb. They had asked themselves en route how they would get the stone rolled away. So, when coming to an open, unused tomb, why didn't they keep going? Wrong-tomb theorists do not say, except to claim that the women were confused. ("They went to the wrong tomb because they were confused. How do we know they were confused? Because they went to the wrong tomb." A bit circular, eh?)
- Having already been to Jesus's tomb on Friday, they knew which tomb to go to.
The wrong-tomb theory also echoes the ancient belief that women could not be trusted to relate facts rather than addle-headed nonsense. Its unspoken precept is, “Let me tell you what those idiot women did.”
- why the gardener Mary conversed with claimed he was Jesus
- why Mary called him Lord when he knew and she thought that Jesus was dead elsewhere.
- why the gardener told Mary to tell the disciples he would meet them in Galilee.
No historian concerned about his reputation promotes either the swoon theory or the wrong-tomb theory any more, but many people still argue them.
Scientific objections to the resurrection
Many people you will witness to will reply that science shows it to be impossible. In fact, science shows no such thing. There are some scientists who say the resurrection is scientifically impossible. But there are many other scientists who profess religious faith. For example:
A scientific discovery is also a religious discovery. There is no conflict between science and religion. Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery we make about the world. - Joseph H. Taylor, Jr., who received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the first known binary pulsar, and for his work which supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe.
Astronomers … have proven … that the world began abruptly in an act of creation… . And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover… . That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact. – Robert Jastrow , Astronomer, physicist and founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.
The common belief that… the actual relations between religion and science over the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility… is not only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability. – Colin Russell, Cambridge University historian of science.
Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view. – Max Planck, Nobel Prize physicist, founder of quantum theory, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century).
Two other examples are Dr. Francis Collins, head of the human genome project and currently director of the National Institutes of Health and Dr. John Lennox, professor and Fellow in Mathematics at Oxford University. There are many others.
Sociologist Elaine Ecklund surveyed 1,700 scientists and conducted personal interviews with 275 of them at elite American universities, seeking to find out what their views on religion were. She writes:
After four years of research, at least one thing became clear: Much of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. The [presumed] ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.
Most of the non-religious scientists Ecklund interviewed said that they just were not interested in religion questions, any more than a Methodist preacher would be much interested in how to mass produce elemental isotopes. And unlike the rest of America, younger scientists are more religious than older ones.
So it is important to understand the difference between what science, as a discipline, can do and what scientists may personally believe. Scientists may deny or affirm the resurrection, but science as a discipline can neither rebut nor confirm it. Here’s why: Science can neither prove nor disprove historicalquestions, though science can help answer many historical details. Science can neither prove nor disprove that George Washington crossed the Delaware river to fight Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776, for example. It's not a scientific question. The resurrection of Jesus is an historical question that the sciences might aid in answering. But science as a discipline cannot determine the answer.
One big reason is that the scientific method can't adequately address miracles. The error some scientists make is in therefore saying that there are no such things as miracles. Consider this: Imagine that someone at the end of our church service someone stated, “Speaking as a lawyer, I have determined that this church has one of the most skilled accompanists in Tennessee.” Now that is probably true, but it’s not a legal question. Similarly, science by definition investigates the natural world and so cannot speak definitivelyabout supernatural events, which is what the resurrection is.
Scientific integrity requires that scientists and non-scientists alike recognize that there are limits to scientific knowledge. Failing this is the main error of the so-called New Atheist movement, whose advocates insist that
But these claims are themselves not testable with the scientific method. They are not scientific claims, but claims of faith in science, or scientism. Richard Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist, explained in The New York Review of Books in 1997 (link) that scientism has a ...
- only science reveals the Real,
- only science can discover truth
- scientific knowledge is exhaustive and inherently unlimited.
... prior commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations ... . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
But nothing about Jesus' resurrection overturns science at all. Before he was Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the resurrection is
... no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts … speak of something new, something unprecedented -- a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known.
The Mythical Story theory
The next rebuttal of the resurrection is the claim that stories about a divine hero dying and returning to life were a dime a dozen among ancient peoples and that Jesus's resurrection is just another example. In this claim, “Jesus Christ is a mythological character along the same lines as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian or other godmen, who are all presently accepted as myths rather than historical figures.” However, experts in the field are not making this claim. Professor Norman Geisler of Loyola University explains, “No Greek or Roman myth spoke of a literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form by way of a literal virgin birth, followed by his death and physical resurrection.” Nor were such stories very common at all. Only about fifteen such ancient stories are identified by claimants. British scholar Norman Anderson argues,
The basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historic basis of one and the mythological character of the others. The deities of the mysteries were no more than ‘nebulous figures of an imaginary past,’ while the Christ whom the [apostles] proclaimed had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written.
As Peter told the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, you know this Jesus of whom I speak. Peter was not referring to a mythical figure of a hazy, distant past, but one whom his hearers had known personally.
Furthermore, “Most of the evidence for the alleged similarities from the pagan myths date between the second to fourth centuries,” long after the New Testament had been written. If anything, most of those ancient myths are likely based on Jesus rather than the other way round. Also, myth theorists must explain why the fiercely monogamous Jews would have adopted pagan myths to promote the Jewish Jesus and why they would have falsely claimed Jesus dead and risen when the existing, well-developed concept of the messiah had never included such a concept. Finally, the pagan-myth hypothesis makes no attempt at all to grapple with the historical facts that are, well, facts, not myth.
The apostles were deluded or frauds
Last is the claim that the apostles were either deluded or they mounted a deliberate conspiracy of falsehoods. Almost no one claims any more that the apostles were deliberately lying because, as J.P. Moreland put it,
The disciples had nothing to gain by lying and starting a new religion. They faced hardship, ridicule, hostility, and martyr's deaths. In light of this, they could never have sustained such unwavering motivation if they knew what they were preaching was a lie. The disciples were not fools and Paul was a cool-headed intellectual of the first rank. There would have been several opportunities over three to four decades of ministry to reconsider and renounce a lie.Let’s look at the delusion angle. Today’s leading figure in promoting this theory is German scholar and self-admitted atheist Gerd Ludemann, who says in What Really Happened to Jesus that the apostles undeniably believed what they proclaimed, but were so psychologically distraught from the cruel death of Jesus that they all suffered exactly the same hallucination that Jesus was alive again. Ludemann says that the source of the disciples’ visions were psychological processes which occurred “completely without divine intervention.” Therefore, “A consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.”
(Ludemann taught for several years at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the source of my own M.Div. I began there just after he had returned to Germany so I did not study under him. However, What Really Happened to Jesus was an assigned book in my New Testament class.)
On its face the delusion theory seems plausible. But I would submit that it fails for these reasons:
Finally, such a delusion seems unique in the entire world, having never occurred before or since. Ludemann attempts to show analogous delusions in other figures or groups of people in other historical occasion, but they are actually present only superficial similarities; most are actually more dissimilar than similar.
- First, delusion theory presumes from the outset that the resurrection is false. When its greatest proponent is a self-described atheist, it sort of gives the game away.
- Second, the delusion theory does not explain why the tomb was empty or why deluded apostles would admit that a woman first bore the Easter message.
- Third, that the apostles’ delusion was caused by their psychological need to regain company with Jesus is suspect because the pre-resurrection disciples seem less devoted to Jesus than the theory demands. John 11, for example, records that eleven of the twelve were so upset with Jesus that they wanted to quit and go home, staying only because Thomas talked them into it. Every disciple abandoned Jesus to his fate when he was arrested, hardly evidence of such intense love and loyalty that they would later see hallucinations of Jesus alive.
- Fourth, the theory does not explain why Paul and Jesus's brother James became deluded as well. Neither man followed Jesus before his death; Paul never even met him. Ludemann simply dodges this question altogether.
If the apostles were deluded, then I want that same delusion! It is a delusion that inspires people to become the finest they can be, to exhibit and live the highest virtues and to order their lives around love, integrity, faithfulness and devotion to the good of all. Delusion? May we all hope to be equally deluded.
Coming April 28: Just what did the apostles mean by resurrection, anyway, and what does it matter to us?
Endnote: The explanation that the the tomb was empty because someone had stolen Jesus' body is one I covered in a previous post