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It is strange, is it not, that perfectly rational, even brilliant people should believe the most untenable of fables but disbelieve the most believable of historical events? No, it is beyond strange: it is downright tragic, because to deny this one historical fact—the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ—means to die in pitiful despair (1 Cor. 15:17–19).
Yet people through the ages have replaced the simple truth of Christ’s resurrection with fabulous theories of their own. They must do something, because Christ’s resurrection cannot be ignored by anyone calling himself a Christian. An enraged bull in a pasture is merely of possible interest, but he becomes an item of urgent attention when he shows up in one’s living room. The resurrection of Jesus is squarely in the living room of Christianity.
The first alternative theory held that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and lied about His resurrection. Indeed, this story was spread by those who crucified Him (Matt. 28:11–15). In subsequent centuries, the rudimentary hoax theory was modified to say that Judas or Simon Magus substituted himself on the cross for Jesus, who subsequently went into hiding. More recent times have witnessed several variations on this theory. In 1778, a deist professor of Oriental languages in Germany, H.M. Reimarus, advanced the old line that the deceitful disciples stole Jesus’ body. In 1828, another German professor named H.E.G. Paulus defended his “swoon theory,” which said that Jesus merely fainted on the cross and came out of His grave a few days later to live out His days in hiding. A more complicated hoax theory was advanced with much media publicity in 1965 by Hugh Schonfield (The Passover Plot). He said Jesus purposely provoked His crucifixion, which He survived with the help of drugged vinegar from conspirators Judas and Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus’ goal was to dupe His disciples into believing that He was raised to eternal life.
The original hoax theory fails on the simple point that it would have taken nothing more than exhuming Jesus’ body to explode the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter himself remarked that all his contemporaries knew that David “ ‘is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day,’ ” yet “ ‘This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses’ ” (Acts 2:29, 32). It is impossible to believe that an early Christian testimony like this could stand if Jesus’ body were still in His tomb for the authorities to produce. It is equally impossible to believe that the confused disciples would have dreamed of stealing Jesus’ body from under the noses of armed guards in order to perpetrate some grand fraud about His resurrection. After all, their belief in Jesus’ resurrection caused great risk to their lives and families.
Schonfield’s fanciful reconstruction has been called a thin “tissue of imagination,” and the same could be said of all the hoax theories. Are we to believe that all of the earliest Christians were a credulous lot of dupes to be taken in by some incredibly stupid scheme? How could anyone have provoked His own crucifixion with the intention of pulling off some exceptionally complicated ruse? And are we to believe that Jesus and His apostles, who consistently taught and modeled the highest of ethical standards, were rank liars and frauds (Rev. 21:8; 22:15)?
A second theory dating from the earliest days of Christianity was particularly attractive in a pagan Greek world in which many denigrated bodily existence and exalted the soul. Some independent teachers arose on the outskirts of Christianity, teaching that Jesus did not rise from the dead in the body because He never had a body—He merely appeared to come “in flesh.” This teaching was called docetism, after the Greek word meaning “to appear,” and it was opposed very early on by the apostle John (1 John 4:1–3; 2 John 7) and the early church father Ignatius of Antioch (especially in his Trallian and Smyrnean epistles).
A short Gnostic treatise on the Resurrection, found among the Nag Hammadi collection, asserts that Christ’s body was indeed raised from the dead. The author says that it is more suitable to believe that the world is illusory than that the Resurrection was. This ancient Gnostic teacher’s statement is a most perceptive critique of the docetic assertion that Christ was a phantom all along. “ ‘Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have’ ” (Luke 24:39).
A final theory states that Jesus truly died and His body stayed in the tomb. How then do they explain the testimony of the disciples who said they saw the risen Christ? Various explanations have been advanced by twentieth-century scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann, Johannes Weiss, Michael Perry, and, most recently, Gerd Luedemann. The disciples honestly believed that Jesus rose from the dead, we are told, but they were only experiencing a mental picture of Him. For some, this vision was a subjective dream induced by crushing disappointment. For others, the vision of the risen Christ had an objective core as a paranormal telepathic experience.
Luedemann, Perry, and others would have us place our faith in the highly dubious area of parapsychology (telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, etc.) and the study of the “unconscious,” about which various psychological schools of thought have widely divergent views. Luedemann, for example, says religion is a “psychodynamic” grappling with the unconscious, so that what the disciples experienced was induced by a kind of religious ecstasy.
However, if the ancients were unable to distinguish a vision from real life, why do we read in the gospels that Thomas and others did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until they verified that He was physically raised by touching Him, by seeing the evidence of crucifixion, and by watching Him eat (John 20:24–29; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:41–43; cf. Matt. 28:17)? Orthodox Christianity has chosen to believe the testimony of men who insisted that they touched and saw these things with their own hands and eyes (Heb. 2:1–4; 2 Peter 1:16–21; 1 John 1:1–3).
Both modern hoax theories and vision theories arise from an anti-supernaturalist assumption that Jesus could not have risen from the dead. The theorists claim that they are pursuing the issue through “scientific” historical inquiry, yet they exclude the only plausible conclusion from the start. This is not unbiased historiography at work.
These and other alternatives to the Bible’s presentation of a loving and omnipotent God who raised His incarnate Son from the dead for our redemption are hardly persuasive. The question comes down to whose testimony we can believe. “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables … but were eyewitnesses” (2 Peter 1:16).