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False Theories Against the Resurrection of Christ

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Philip Schaff, the great historian wrote, “the purpose of the historian is not to construct a history from preconceived notions and to adjust it to his own liking, but to reproduce it from the best evidence and to let it speak for itself.” Concerning the various theories of men who try to explain away the resurrection, Josh McDowell, who has done a tremendous amount of investigation on the resurrection and the uniqueness of the Bible, writes:

Many theories have been advanced, attempting to show that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a fraud. I believe that many of the people who came up with these theories must have had two brains--one lost, and the other one out looking for it. Historians have to become anti-historical to invent some of their ideas (The Resurrection Factor, p. 76).

When considering the evidence and evaluating what happened that first Easter, we must be conscious to two principles:

    1. The theories or alternate explanations must take into account all the acts surrounding the resurrection of Christ.

    2. One must not force the evidence into a preconceived conclusion, but let the evidence speak for itself. (See McDowell, p. 76).

This study will cover only a few of the most popular theoretical explanations that have been set forth, generally by unbelievers or liberal theologians who very often operate out of a moral twist to explain away the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They reject the evidence not because it is insufficient, but because of its moral implications on their lives. An excellent work on the whole subject of the resurrection is The Resurrection Factor by Josh McDowell.

The Swoon Theory
or Resuscitation Theory

The Theory Defined

Jesus did not really die, He only swooned, therefore the disciples saw only a revived or resuscitated Christ. Christ was nailed to a cross and suffered from shock, pain and loss of blood. But instead of actually dying, He only fainted (swooned) from exhaustion. When He was placed in the tomb, He was still alive and the disciples, mistaking Him for dead, buried Him alive. After several hours, He revived in the coolness of the tomb, arose, and departed.

The Refutation

This theory completely ignores the evidences of His death and would require a greater miracle than the resurrection. According to this theory:

The cool damp air of the tomb, instead of killing Him, healed Him. He split out of His garments, pushed the stone away, fought off the guards and shortly thereafter appeared to His disciples as the Lord of life (McDowell, p. 98).

    The Linen Wrappings

Matthew 28:6 “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.

Mark 16:6 And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.

Luke 24:12 (But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at that which had happened.)

John 20:5-8 and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 Simon Peter therefore also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he beheld the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed.

The swoon theory cannot answer the problem of the linen wrappings lying undisturbed, exactly as they had been when around the body of Christ. Christ would have had to perform a miracle of wiggling out of the wrappings which were wound tightly about the body with over a hundred pounds of spices in the wrappings without someone to help unwrap Him, as in the case of Lazarus in John 11.

    The Circumstances of the Cross

John 19:31-35 The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath for that Sabbath was a high day, asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32 The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; 33 but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; 34 but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. 35 And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

Mark 15:43-45 Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 And Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. 45 And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.

These circumstances proved Christ died. He was dead in the judgment of the soldiers, in the judgment of Pilate, in the judgment of the Jews who requested the guard for the tomb, and in the judgment of the women who went to the tomb to further prepare the body by heaping spices over the body.

    The Physical Condition of Christ After Crucifixion

If Christ had only swooned, He still would have still been half dead. A great deal of time would have been needed for recuperation. In His weakened condition He could not have walked the seven miles on the Emmaus road. It would have been impossible for someone (who had only resuscitated from the agonies the Lord endured with the beatings and crucifixion) to so quickly give the impression that He was the Conqueror of death and the grave, the Prince of Life. In fact it was this belief which turned the disciples around and became the foundation of the rest of their ministries.

In addition to the three things mentioned above, there are other circumstances that need to be explained like the removal of the stone and the guard over the tomb.

The Hallucination Theory

The Theory Defined

This theory says all of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances were really only supposed appearances because actually the people only had hallucinations. In this way, all the post-resurrection appearances can be dismissed.

The Refutation

How could so many people have hallucinations--especially 500 at one time? Furthermore, the appearances happened under different conditions and were spread out over different times. And, don’t forget, the disciples were reluctant to believe in the resurrection in the first place! This involves a miracle of blindness to reason away the resurrection.

Mark 16:11-16 And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. And after that, He appeared in a different form to two of them, while they were walking along on their way to the country. 13 And they went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

Luke 24:11-12 And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. 12 (But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at that which had happened.)

John 20:24-30 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

The hallucination theory is simply not plausible because it contradicts laws and principles which psychiatrists say are essential to hallucinations. Psychiatrists claim:

  • Only certain kinds of people have hallucinations. These are usually high-strung, highly imaginative, and very nervous people. In fact, usually only paranoid or schizophrenic individuals have hallucinations. But Christ appeared to many different types of people. His appearances were not restricted to people of any particular psychological make up.
  • Hallucinations are linked in an individual’s subconscious--to his particular past experiences and this was certainly not a part of any past experience.
  • Hallucinations are usually restricted to when and where they occur. They usually occur in a nostalgic atmosphere or in a place of familiar surroundings which places the person to a reminiscing mood.
  • They occur in people when there is a spirit of anticipation or hopeful expectation. The historical record shows no such anticipation existed. They were prone to disbelieve even after they were told of the resurrection.

For further study see, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, p. 257f, and The Resurrection Factor, p. 82f.

The Impersonation Theory

The Theory Defined

This is the view that the appearances were not really Christ at all, but someone impersonating Him. This, the opponents say, is evident because in some cases they did not recognize Him at first (or at all).

The Refutation

    1. The disciples were reluctant to believe in the resurrection, were doubtful and would have been hard to convince unless it was really Him, as was the case with Thomas.

    2. It would have been impossible to impersonate Christ’s wounds. This was Christ’s proof to Thomas that it was really Him (cf. John 20:24f).

    3. At times their inability to recognize Him was a phenomenon of His glorified body brought about by His own purposes as in Luke 24:16, “But their eyes were restricted that they should not recognize Him.”

    4. These men had traveled with the Lord for three years and it is incredible that anyone could have gotten away with an impersonation particularly due to their reluctance to believe.

    5. They were meeting in locked chambers in some instances, and He suddenly appeared in His glorified body. No one could impersonate such a miraculous act other than the resurrected Christ.

The Spiritual Resurrection Theory

The Theory Defined

This is the view that Christ’s resurrection was not a real physical resurrection. Proponents of this theory assert that Christ’s body remained in the grave and His real resurrection was spiritual in nature. It was only told this way to illustrate the truth of spiritual resurrection.

The Refutation

Note what William Craig says in his book entitled, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Our Response to the Empty Tomb:

“We need to see clearly that there can be positive theological implications of the resurrection only insofar as its historical reality is affirmed. While many theologians may find such a conviction hopelessly antiquated, the man in the street knows better. His common sense tells him that there is no reason why a dead man should be decisive for his existence today, and I agree with him. Once doctrinal teachings are detached from their historical realities, we have entered the arena of myth. And there is simply no good reason to prefer Christian myths over other myths or, for that matter, secular philosophies. The resurrection is only real for our lives today if it is a real event of history.” (Introduction, p. xiii)

A physical body did disappear from the tomb. If it was only a spiritual resurrection, then what happened to the body? History shows there was a body there and it disappeared. The enemies of Christ were never able to produce the body nor disprove the resurrection.

The resurrection accounts are not presented in parabolic or symbolic language, but as hard fact. John 20 is full of what Greek grammarians call vivid historical present tenses to stress the historical reality of the Gospel message.

The record states He was touched and handled, that He had a body, and that He even ate with the disciples (Luke 24:30, 41f; John 21:12f).

First Corinthians 15 teaches us that Christ not only arose, but that He arose bodily. He possessed a glorified body which had unique capacities. First Corinthians 15:44 calls it a spiritual body, but it was nevertheless a physical body as well. Note the following facts about the body of Christ:

  • He could appear in different forms (Mark16:12).
  • He could eat though it was not needed for sustenance (Luke 24:30).
  • He could appear and disappear and could pass through solid objects (John 20:19, 26).
  • He could pass in a moment from one place to another (Luke 24:31).

Philippians 3:21 shows that His body was glorious and unique, but nevertheless, still a body according to which our bodies will one day be fashioned. So, it was spiritual, glorified, and yet a physical body of flesh and bone.

The Theft Theory

The Theory Defined

The disciples stole the body and claimed that He rose from the dead.

Matthew 28:11-15 Now while they were on their way, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and counseled together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

The Refutation

    The Linen Wrappings and Empty Tomb

Again, such a theory ignores the evidence of the linen wrappings and the empty tomb. If someone had stolen the body, they would have either taken the body and left the wrappings scattered or piled in a heap, but only resurrection could account for the position of the linen wrappings with the body absent.


Further, there is the question of the probability of who COULD and WOULD steal the body under the circumstances.

    1. The Romans would not; they were there to guard it with their lives by Roman law. They had sealed the tomb and were there to protect it against theft. The religious leaders had provided their own refutation against such a theory.

    2. The women could not for they could not have removed the stone and were wondering who would remove it for them when they went early Sunday morning to finish burial preparations (cf. Mark16:3-4).

    3. The disciples would not because they were perplexed and scattered, huddled together in hidden rooms. Two had even left town and were on their way to Emmaus.

    4. The Jewish crowd would not and had actually requested a Roman guard to protect the tomb against theft (Mat. 27:63-66). This last point is very significant because the presence of the Roman soldiers and the Roman seal over the door made the possibility of the religious leaders claims of theft a thousand times more difficult if not impossible.

The likelihood of these timid, scared Galilean disciples stealing the body of Jesus out from under the noses of a guard of highly disciplined and skilled Roman soldiers while they all slept (an offense punishable by death) is ridiculous.

The Unknown Tomb Theory

The Theory Defined

One of the earliest theories present to explain everything away is that the disciples did not know where the tomb was located and could not have found the empty grave. This theory depends on the belief that those who were crucified were tossed into a common pit and were not allowed to be buried.

The Refutation

This theory also disregards totally the straightforward historical narrative about the events surrounding Christ’s burial and the post-resurrection scene. The Gospel record indicates that Joseph of Arimathea took the body to his own private tomb--not a public mass burial ground. According to Scripture, the body of Christ was prepared for burial according to the burial customs of the Jews; the women sat opposite the tomb and watched. Not only did Joseph of Arimathea and the women know where the tomb was, so did the Romans--they placed a guard there. (McDowell, pp. 77-78).


None of these natural theories adequately deals with the evidence of the known facts that surrounded the resurrection of our Lord. The evidence says He arose and this resurrection marks Him out as the Son of God (Rom. 1:4), as the Savior of the world and the means of justification and peace with God through personal faith in Christ (Rom. 4:25-5:1), or if one rejects the Risen Savior, as their judge at the day of judgment (Acts 17:30-31).

John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,

John 3:16-18 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Related Topics: Easter, Apologetics, Resurrection

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