Christ’s Resurrection – Hoax or History?
By Neil Earle
To the Bible writer Paul this was the hinge doctrine of the Christian Faith: “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Did it really happen? Or is it, as some people believed in Peter’s day, and some still charge today, a “cunningly devised fable” (2 Peter 1:16)?
To demonstrate the factual and even scientific evidence for the resurrection, we shall examine the main charges against it. Three main ideas have emerged across history to explain away the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here they are:
1) The Swoon Theory: Jesus didn’t really die, but faked a death on the cross, rallied later on, conned His disciples and lived out His life elsewhere.
2) The Theft Theory: The disciples or other sympathizers stole the body and spread the rumor that Christ was resurrected. This is the oldest counter-claim, as we shall see.
3) The Hallucination Theory: The disciples were the victims of mass hysteria or some other psychological disorder.
Let’s consider that the four gospels claim to be eyewitness testimony set to writing (Luke 1:1-4, John 19:35).
Did Jesus really die?
It is a bold question, and a dagger aimed at the very vitals of Christianity: Could Jesus Christ have faked a death on the cross? Could He, the greatest moral teacher who ever lived, have lived out a lie? Did Christ, by some amazing cunning tactic, fool His fanatical antagonists during a public execution? However fascinating this theory, it completely breaks down.
As Paul argued before King Agrippa, “This thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Mark 15:29 states that the execution of Jesus Christ was a public spectacle. Christ’s foes were the chief leaders and officials of Judea (Mark 15:1). Pontius Pilate himself, the Roman procurator, double-checked to verify the death of Christ (verses 44-45). The Roman writer Tacitus mentioned the execution of Jesus in his Annals (xv.44).
John 19:23 and Mark 15:39 indicate that at least four Roman soldiers, including a veteran centurion, were in charge of the execution. Depend on it: Hardened occupation troops of the Roman Empire knew what death was. By some estimates only one in 10 people ever survived a Roman scourging.
Consider this: Would the bloodthirsty Jerusalem hierarchy, so eager to deal Christ and His disciples a smashing blow, allow Christ, once in their clutches, to “fake” death? Not likely.
British author John Stott demolishes the swoon theory with sheer common sense. He asks if we are to believe “that after the rigors and pain of trial, mockery, flogging and crucifixion, He could survive in a stone sepulcher with neither food nor warmth nor medical care? That He could then rally to perform the super-human feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb without disrupting the Roman guard? That He could appear to the disciples in such a way as to give them the impression that He had vanquished death? Such credulity is more incredible than Thomas’ unbelief” (Basic Christianity, page 49).
All the strands of testimony conclude: Jesus Christ did really die.
Who stole the body?
Then there is the ingenious idea that the disciples stole the body. This originated immediately after the event.
Why? Because the one crowning blow to disprove Christ’s resurrection would be for the chief priests to produce the corpse, to show the dead body and end the “myth” Peter was propagating. Why didn’t the Jewish rulers do that? It would have stopped Christianity dead in its tracks.
Because Christ’s body couldn’t be found! He had been raised by the power of God.
Enter the theft theory:
“Some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:11-15).
But this is refuted by simple logic.
In the first place, if the guards were sleeping, how did they know who had stolen the body?
Secondly, who scared off the guard? Remember the Jewish leaders took every precaution to stamp out Christ and His movement. Notice in Matthew 27:62-66 the sequence of events starting the day after the crucifixion. “So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard” (Matthew 27:62-66). What an amazing turn of events! When had a crucified man ever had the honor of being guarded by a squad of soldiers?
Also, as one scholar adds, “Soldiers cold-blooded enough to gamble over a dying victim’s cloak are not the kind of men to be hoodwinked by timid Galileans or to jeopardize their Roman necks by sleeping on their posts.” Exactly.
Third, the Hallucination Theory
In this age of pop psychology, variations on this theme are in vogue and will continue to arise. None will stand the weight of the evidence against it.
Even a casual reading of the gospels will point out that the disciples were caused to believe against their will (Luke 24:11). “Doubting Thomas” is a proverb of the English language.
The disciples of the four gospels revealed themselves to be rugged, practical men. Christ rebuked them often for their slowness to believe (Matthew 16:21-23). The disciples displayed not one iota of the morbid excitement of the nervous system that causes mass hysteria. They were very much men of this world, not given to flights of imagination.
The swirling events of crucifixion week didn’t even leave them time for the long psychological preparation necessary for hallucinations to take root. Their moods varied: John was stunned but dutiful (John 19:26-27); Peter was torn by guilt and remorse (Luke 22:62); Thomas was skeptical (John 20:25); two were distracted and numbed (Luke 24:13-17).
How likely is it that two or more people would have the same hallucination? Not to mention 11 or even 500 (1 Corinthians 15:6).
And why did the alleged visions stop so suddenly?
Christ’s post-resurrection appearances were not fleeting glances of a phantom, but more like prolonged interviews, as both John 21 and Luke 24 bring out. Matthew 28:9 says the faithful women actually held the resurrected Lord by his feet. On three occasions these “hallucinations” were not even recognized as Christ (Luke 24:16, John 20:15, 21:4).
The disoriented disciples of crucifixion week were forced to believe against their will. They laid their lives down for their belief and the Christian church is the result. Their word to us is solid and secure: Because he lives we shall live also! We were eye-witnesses (1 Peter 1:8).