What Are the Different Theories Concerning Christ's Resurrection?

The Gospels tell us that after Jesus was crucified a man named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to take the body and bury it in a never-before-used tomb. He wrapped the body in linen, and women later came and prepared the body for a proper burial with spices and perfumes. Luke writes that when the women returned on the third day “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,” and when they went inside “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus,” and that angels appeared and told them that Jesus was alive and had risen (Luke 24:1-6).

The resurrection of Jesus is at the center of Christian belief, for “if Christ has not been raised [our] faith is worthless; [we] are still in [our] sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Thankfully, there is strong evidence supporting the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are also convincing responses to theories that suggest that He didn’t rise from the dead.

One such theory is sometimes known as the swoon theory. This theory argues that Jesus never really died, and left the tomb under His own power. He may have fainted or gone into a coma and then recovered. There are several problems with this theory. The Roman soldiers overseeing the crucifixion checked Jesus, found Him dead, and then pierced His side with a spear. Jesus was embalmed and John 19:39 says that the spices and perfumes used to prepare the body for burial weighed “about a hundred pounds.” He was also wrapped in linen and given no medical attention for three days. Those who propose this theory would have us believe that Jesus somehow survived all of this and then managed to move the stone at the tomb’s entrance Himself! The truth is that crucifixion was designed to guarantee death, and no one ever survived it.

Another theory says that the women must have gone to the wrong tomb. While it is possible that they could have initially made this mistake, it is one that the authorities would have easily corrected. They knew where the tomb was, because they placed guards there. Had the women spread stories about the resurrection because they had seen a different empty tomb, the Roman and Jewish authorities could have easily referred everyone to the still-occupied tomb. The other problem with this theory is the fact that the disciples verified the women’s report by going to the tomb themselves. John describes how he and Peter “were running together” and how he got to the tomb first and “saw the linen wrappings lying there” (John 20:2-8).

Some argue that the body may have been stolen by the disciples, the women, or by Joseph of Arimathea (the owner of the tomb). Matthew’s gospel tells us more about this theory. The group of religious leaders known as Pharisees, remembered Jesus’ prophecy about rising again on the third day, and convinced Pilate to have the tomb guarded, so that Jesus’ disciples could not steal the body. Matthew says that “they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone” (Matt. 27:66). This seal was a sign of authentication that the tomb was occupied and the power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal. Anyone found breaking the Roman seal would suffer the punishment of an unpleasant death. Also, moving the stone would have been incredibly difficult to do, and it certainly wouldn’t be quiet. Additionally, most of the disciples were put to death because they were proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. It is highly unlikely that they would all choose to die for something they simply made up, especially when they could have saved their lives by changing their story.

Matthew also tells us about how the religious leaders of the time explained the empty tomb. The chief priests and elders got together and paid some of the soldiers guarding the tomb to claim that the disciples came during the night, while the guards were asleep, and stole the body. The guards “took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day” (Matthew 28:11-15). Under Roman law guards were executed for falling asleep at their post, making it extremely unlikely that they would have been sleeping soundly enough for the disciples to come and steal the body.

It is even more unlikely that the women stole the body. All the same problems exist with the additional difficulty of the women being unable to move the stone themselves. They recognized their own inability to do so when they returned to the tomb, planning to finish the burial rites with additional spices. In thinking about the problem, “they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’” (Mark 16:3).

Another suggestion is that Joseph of Arimathea stole the body because of his secret belief in Jesus. He would encounter all the same problems that the disciples would in stealing the body, and he doesn’t appear to have a strong motive. If the body were stolen, surely it would have been found by those attempting to put to rest rumors of a resurrection. Also, none of the theories address the multiple resurrection appearances of Jesus.

One theory that does attempt to explain the resurrection appearances is the hallucination theory. It suggests that those who claimed to see Jesus after his crucifixion were imagining it and didn’t really see Him. One reason that a person might imagine the reappearance of a loved one is as a sort of wish fulfillment. Perhaps the overwhelming desire to see the person again would result in a hallucination. However, the disciples appear to have accepted Jesus death and had returned to their ordinary lives. The biggest problem with the hallucination theory is that hallucinations are private and individual. They don’t occur in groups. Yet, in one instance Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time” (1 Corinthians 15:6).

A belief that was popularized by a group of people known as Gnostics was that Jesus was resurrected spiritually and not physically. This teaching came out of a belief that anything physical is bad and that everything in the spiritual world is good. The description of the appearances clearly shows that Jesus had a real body after His death and resurrection. He was physically touched. Mary Magdalene clung to Him (John 20:17), Thomas felt His wounds (John 20:27), and Jesus ate broiled fish (Luke 24:41-43). Spirits can’t be touched, and they definitely don’t eat.

In his book The Passover Plot, Hugh Schonfield suggests that those who claimed to see Jesus after His crucifixion were actually witnessing an imposter, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea. The fact that many of those who saw Him didn’t immediately recognize Him is used as evidence to support this theory. However, in each and every case, the witnesses’ initial doubt about Jesus’ identity was replaced by a confidence that it was in fact Jesus. This theory also fails to provide an explanation for the empty tomb.

Something caused the disciples to move from despair to belief in the days after Jesus’ death. Their discouragement was replaced by conviction that He was, indeed, the risen Savior. The tomb remained empty, Jesus’ dead body was never again seen, and those who saw and believed were forever changed. The most believable explanation for this is that Jesus rose from the dead in bodily form, just as He said He would.


Those who would like to read more on this topic are encouraged to check out:


Gary Habermas - journal articles on the resurrection                              http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/articles.htm

Peter Kreeft - Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ                                              http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/resurrection-evidence.htm

Lee Strobel - The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus                            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5wKYcK_kUs


Winfried Corduan - No Doubt about It: The Case for Christianity (http://amzn.com/0805416471)

Norman Geisler - Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (http://amzn.com/0801021510)

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