Christians believe that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans, buried in a tomb and came back to life three days later. He then appeared to numerous people over 40 days before getting whisked off to Heaven. Could this really have happened? Or was Jesus’s resurrection the greatest hoax of all time?
In today’s increasingly secular world, if you grew up in a non-religious household with literally no knowledge of Christianity or Jesus, and someone came along and told you the Resurrection story, your reaction would probably be: what a load of old baloney. The fact is, billions of people still believe that Jesus Christ was God’s son on Earth, died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. They consider it a real event in history, as real as the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and his six wives and the First World War.
But how likely is it that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? There are several specific theories suggesting that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, which purport to explain what really happened…
The disciples stole Jesus’s body from the tomb
According to the four gospels, Jesus’s tomb was discovered empty by some women, including Mary Magdalene, who were told by an angel that he had risen. The stolen body conspiracy theory is that Jesus’s disciples stole his body from the tomb in order to fake his resurrection, and convince people of his holiness and divinity.
Several arguments are made by Christians to discount this theory. Firstly they argue that the disciples would not preach about and ultimately die for something they knew to be false. A very weak argument; the present day is full of examples of deluded people dying for falsities and lies they knowingly promote, let alone history.
A more substantive argument is that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who crucified Jesus, dispatched guards to seal the tomb with a stone and stand guard. Therefore there would have been no opportunity for the disciples or anyone else to steal the body. The Gospel of Matthew actually addresses the stolen body theory. It says that a bunch of chief priests asked Pilate to send guards to seal the tomb because they feared the disciples would steal the body to fake a resurrection. The guards watched the tomb until Mary Magdalene arrived, at which point there was an earthquake and the stone rolled away. No Jesus.
However, scholars and historians such as L. Michael White and Richard Carrier argue that the story about guards sealing and watching the tomb was probably a fictional addition to the Gospel of Matthew. It was added to make the stolen body conspiracy theory – which was circulating at the time the gospel was written – appear implausible.
He didn’t rise from the dead – he just woke up
The swoon hypothesis holds that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross – he just fell unconscious or ‘swooned’ and later came around when he was in the tomb, explaining his appearances after his ‘death’. One of the arguments supporting this says that Jesus ‘died’ far too quickly. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus took just six hours to die, whereas it took an average of two to four days for a crucifixion to kill someone, and sometimes as long as nine.
However, medical interpretation of the evidence provided by the gospels says that Jesus was definitely dead when he was removed from the cross. It’s said that his death would have been accelerated by the injuries he received beforehand, from being flogged and beaten – which didn’t happen to all victims of crucifixion. Furthermore, the Gospel of John says that a soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a spear after they removed him.
Others argue that if Jesus wasn’t dead when he was taken down from the cross, he definitely would’ve died after being placed in a cold tomb with no medical attention for several days.
But proponents of the swoon theory would counter-argue that there was no public viewing of Jesus’s corpse. He was whisked away and allegedly buried by one man – Joseph of Arimathea. What if Jesus was still alive and received medical attention in secret? Who can prove otherwise?
Also, sceptics of the swoon hypothesis talk about medical interpretation of the evidence provided by the gospels. What if the gospels themselves aren’t reliable historical records? For example, the story about the spear being thrust into Jesus’s side only features in John, not in the other three gospels. If it really happened, wouldn’t Mark, Luke and Matthew have mentioned it?
Jesus’s appearances after his death were just hallucinations
The vision hypothesis says that the disciples and Mary Magdalene imagined Jesus appearing to them, that his 40 days of post-death appearances were all hallucinations.
Alfred Edersheim refutes this theory by saying that the disciples expected Jesus to stay dead and needed convincing that he had returned to life. And Pinchas Lapide argues:
“If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself.”
It would seem a bit of a stretch to say that they all hallucinated Jesus’s appearances. But what if you combine the vision and stolen body theories? What if the disciples’ ‘visions’ were all part of the conspiracy to convince the world of his resurrection, after they stole his body from the tomb? Yes, Mary Magdalene and another Mary supposedly experienced Jesus’s first post-resurrection appearance. But what if they were in on it?
The gospels – reliable accounts of history?
All three of these alternative explanations of the Resurrection rely on re-interpreting the gospel accounts. But do the gospels actually contain any reliable evidence at all?
The first problem with the four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – is that there were a number of other gospels that were discarded as spurious. Why? What’s spurious about them? Who decided Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the true accounts, and where’s the evidence? There is still disagreement among scholars about what’s accurate and what’s not.
The second problem is that the four canonical gospels are not contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’s life. They were all written decades after he had died, and worse, no dates and details are given by the authors, so scholars can’t agree exactly how long after. It’s all guesswork. Reza Aslan states:
“These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith written many years after the events they describe.”
The third problem is that, while there are theories, scholars don’t actually know who wrote the gospels!
As a former history student – and a lawyer – I have to say that these issues really are the death knell of a reliable historical source, or of anything that makes a claim to be ‘evidence’. The gospels are anonymous, not contemporaneous, not eyewitness accounts and just based on hearsay and unverified sources. If someone tried to use one of them as evidence in a modern courtroom, it would get thrown out immediately.
It’s therefore not remotely surprising that all the gospels contradict each other. There’s the aforementioned stabbing with the spear, only mentioned in John, and John differs greatly in many respects from the other three. All four gospels tell different stories about who discovered the empty tomb, and about the appearance of the angel(s). And Mark, considered the primary source of information about Jesus, has a tacked-on ending that was written sometime in the 2nd century – the original ending had no post-resurrection appearances from Jesus. So who knows what’s fact and what’s fiction?
I’ll be honest, I’m a raging atheist. I believe the idea that God created the world is no more likely than the idea that a magical flying rhinoceros with wings made of cheese is in control of the weather.
And being frank, it’s fairly ridiculous that people base their beliefs in the fanciful story of Jesus’s resurrection on historical sources that cannot be labelled ‘historical’ or regarded as reliable evidence of anything. Richard Dawkins hit the nail on the head in The God Delusion when he made reference to controversial Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code:
“The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.”
Therefore I have to conclude that, yes, the Resurrection is a load of old baloney. Whether there was a deliberate plot to deceive billions of Christians into buying this baloney is another matter. Many people, even Christians, accept that much of the Bible consists of stories, myths and parables written by people with a limited, non-scientific and mystical understanding of the world. Maybe they were never intended to be taken literally.
Maybe, instead of a conspiracy, the only person truly responsible for the Resurrection hoax was Jesus himself. Jesus duped everyone into believing he was the Son of God, causing biblical writers to make him the central character of a bunch of fairy stories.
If indeed Jesus even existed at all – a bone of contention in itself.
Next week: Did the CIA assassinate Marilyn Monroe?
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion