S. M. Baugh
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 resurrection of Christ with some fabulous theories of their own. They must do something, because Christ’s resurrection cannot be ignored by anyone who goes under the name of Christian. An enraged bull in a pasture you speed past on the highway is merely of possible interest, but he necessarily becomes an item of urgent attention when he shows up in your living room! The resurrection of Jesus Christ is squarely in the living room of Christianity.
It seems that virtually all possible theories to turn aside from believing in Christ’s resurrection have been advanced at one time or another. But they always fade away in light of the overwhelming evidence and truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. His resurrection today is as real and demanding for the unbeliever as that snorting bull parked in the living room.
The very first alternative theory proposed said that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and were lying about his resurrection. Indeed this was spread by those who crucified the Lord (see Matt. 28:11–15). In subsequent centuries the rudimentary hoax theory was modified to say that either Judas or Simon Magus substituted himself on the cross for Jesus who subsequently went into hiding. More recent times have witnessed several versions of the hoax 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 says 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 newer and more complicated hoax theory was advanced with much media publicity in 1965 by Hugh Schonfield (The Passover Plot) who said that Jesus provoked his own crucifixion which he survived—with the help of some drugged vinegar from conspirators Judas and Joseph of Arimathea—in order to dupe his gullible disciples into believing that he was raised to eternal life.
The original hoax theory fails on the simple point that all it would have taken to explode the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection was to exhume his body. Peter himself remarks 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 in order to expose a hoax. It is equally impossible to believe that the demoralized, confused group of 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. What would be the point? They gained nothing by their belief in Jesus’ resurrection except great risk to their lives and families—indeed, many paid the extreme price for their faith.
Hugh Schonfield’s fanciful reconstruction has been called a thin “tissue of imagination,” and the same could be said of all the other hoax theories. Are we to believe that all of the earliest Christians were a credulous lot of dupes to be taken by some incredibly stupid scheme? How could anyone have provoked his own crucifixion with the intention of surviving and 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 (e.g., Rev 21:8; 22:15)? Frankly, these theories are much more preposterous than the Bible’s clear testimony that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead.
A second theory reaching into the earliest days of Christianity was particularly attractive in a pagan Greek world in which many denigrated bodily existence and exalted the soul. Hence, some independent teachers arose on the outskirts of Christianity who taught that Jesus did not rise from the dead in the body, because he never had a body to begin with—he merely appeared to come “in flesh.” This teaching is called “docetism” after the Greek word for “to appear,” and 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). This “docetic” teaching was propagated later among various Christian fringe groups, especially by the pseudo-philosophical works of those known as “Gnostics” and Manichaeans.
Interestingly, there is a short Gnostic treatise on the resurrection found among the famous collection from Nag Hammadi in Egypt, which asserts that Christ’s body was indeed raised from the dead. The author makes a very perceptive point when he says that it is more suitable to believe that the world is illusory than that the resurrection is. Some religions, of course, teach that the world is an illusion, but this notion has no support whatsoever in the biblical world view. In the end, this ancient Gnostic teacher’s statement is a most perceptive critique of the docetic dream 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).
Finally, some alternative theories state that Jesus truly died and his body stayed in the tomb. How then do they explain the testimony of the earliest disciples that they had seen the risen Christ? Various explanations have been advanced by twentieth century scholars like Rudolf Bultmann, Johannes Weiss, Michael Perry, and most recently, by Gerd Luedemann. The disciples honestly believed that Jesus arose from the dead, but, we are told, they were only experiencing a mental picture of him. For some, this vision was a subjective dream induced by the disciples’ own crushing disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion. For others, the vision of the risen Christ had an objective core as a paranormal telepathic experience. For Luedemann, for instance, religion is a “pschyodynamic” grappling with the unconscious, so that what the disciples experienced was induced by a kind of religious ecstasy. He writes that, after all, ancient people were incapable of distinguishing between illusory experiences like this and the experience of external, physical events.
Both modern hoax theories and these modern “vision” theories arise from an anti-supernaturalist starting point 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. Despite their claims, this is not unbiased historiography at work. And 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 could verify that he was physically raised, by touching him and seeing the evidence of crucifixion, and seeing him eat (John 20:24–29; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:41–43; cf. Matt 28:17) ? Perry, Luedemann, 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” on which various psychological theories have widely divergent views. Orthodox Christianity has chosen instead to believe the testimony of men who insisted that they touched and saw these things with their own eyes and hands (e.g., 1 John 1:1–3; 2 Pet 1:16–21; Heb 2:1–4). It seems much more difficult to believe that over 500 people (1 Cor 15:6) experienced the same hallucination induced by some sort of religious frenzy sustained for almost six weeks.
The alternatives proposed throughout history 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. In the end of the day it comes down to whose testimony we can believe. “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables . . . but were eyewitnesses” (2 Pet 1:16).